Most agencies handle encroachment involving existing violations on an individual basis. In this case, trees were removed that were encroaching on a San Diego County Water Authority aqueduct. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority
Landscaped yards might appear harmless, but sometimes homeowners unknowingly encroach upon public land, making it difficult for workers to access underground utilities. Photo: DUDEK

Six years ago, under pressure to more clearly delineate its boundaries, the San Diego County Water Authority launched an aggressive right of way management program.

Older rights of way had not been well maintained, so landowners were uncertain of their land use rights. Much of the rural land the pipelines cross was converting to industrial use, requiring precise knowledge of boundaries before building occurred.

To clear up confusion and enforce the agency's boundaries, four inspectors traverse the agency's entire pipeline system—175 miles of easement that carry three pipelines ranging from 24 inches to 9 feet in diameter—once a week. The system provides treated and untreated water to 23 member agencies, including the city of San Diego.

The agency's vigilance recently paid off. An inspector monitoring the agency's rights of way in Vista, located in north San Diego County, noticed a possible encroachment on the construction site of a custom home. By consulting the agency's survey information, the inspector quickly determined that the builder was about to pour concrete 7 feet into the water authority's right of way.

“He wasn't happy to move his form-work, but he was a lot happier than if he'd had to move the foundation,” says William Rose, the authority's director of right of way.

Like the San Diego County Water Authority, many public agencies have created effective procedures to curb new encroachments onto rights of way. But there remains a larger issue: What to do about existing encroachments that may have been in violation for years—or even decades?


In north San Diego County, the San Diego County Water Authority's aggressive surveying process revealed that a farmer had replaced a grove of avocado trees with new trees directly over one of its pipelines.

Instead of asking the farmer to remove the new trees immediately, the agency proposed allowing the trees to remain for seven years—enough time for the farmer to recoup the cost of the trees and make a reasonable profit—before he'd be asked to remove them for good.

In Poway, Calif., a real estate transfer triggered the discovery of an older home's longtime encroachment into the water authority's right of way. Five feet of one corner of the home sat over the district's pipeline.

The water authority made an agreement with the new homeowner, allowing the corner of the house to remain unless the home undergoes a significant remodel, in which case that portion of the house must be removed.

“As issues get more complex, we get more creative,” says Rose.


In early 2000, the Washington State DOT encountered a long-standing encroachment issue as it planned to widen State Route 20 on Whidbey Island, near Seattle.

Rough surveys indicated that a 15-year-old subdivision was significantly encroaching on a 40-foot-wide, 300-foot-long “borrow pit” that belonged to the DOT adjacent to the highway. Half of one home and the corner of another had been built in the strip of land the DOT had designated as an area from which to borrow fill dirt.