Title: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights
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Title: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights
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Language: English
Publisher: The Appraisal Journal
Spatial Coverage: North America -- United States of America -- Florida
Abstract: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights, 1989
General Note: Box 10, Folder 11 ( SF Water Rights- Condemnation of - 1989 ), Item 1
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Full Text
i-:I ..~. 1. -,

A re G. Colby


-. rl L-IT}

Alternative Approaches to

Valuing Water Rights

Requests for appraisal of water rights are becoming increasingly common, espe-
cially in the western United States. In this article, four different techniques for
appraising water rights are compared, and an example of each technique is pro-
vided. Evaluation of water rights for municipal uses and water-quality differentials
raises special considerations that are also addressed.

Knowledge of the value of water
rights is relevant for many types of
decisions. Examples include a
farmer deciding whether to sell
water rights or continue to use them
for irrigation, a city evaluating
whether to buy senior appropria-
tive rights to augment its supplies,
a tribal council considering a pro-
posal by non-Indian water users to
lease tribal water rights, a federal
agency conducting a cost-benefit
analysis of a water development
proposal, a court assessing the
monetary damages associated with
impairment of a vested surface
water right, or an environmental
organization seeking to purchase
rights to protect stream flows for
fish and wildlife.

Comparing water's value in al-
ternative uses and locations helps
public water agencies-make deci-
sions about management and allo-
cation of publicly supplied water.
Public agencies often use cost-ben-
efit analysis in their decision-mak-
ing process, and information on
water values can contribute to bet-
ter comparisons of the costs and
benefits of water-related projects
and policies. Private businesses and
individuals seek to estimate the
value of water rights they already
own, as well as the value of rights
they are considering for purchase,
lease, or appropriation. Individu-
als investing in water rights want
to know what factors are likely to
affect future water values.' Real

1. Major investment funds have been raised for the specific purpose of investing in water rights
in the western United States. See Water Market Update (January 1987) and (January 1988).
Bonnie G. Colby, PhD, formerly Bonnie Saliba, is professor of agricultural economics at the
University of Arizona. Her research, teaching, and consulting focus on the value of water and other
resources in alternative uses, resource management, and public policy.



estate professionals, economists,
engineers, and attorneys are being
asked more frequently to place a
value on water rights. Despite the
increase in importance of valuing
water rights, little has been pub-
lished on water rights appraisal, and
valuation approaches are far from
E. J. Skeen notes that water
availability is essential to make land
valuable in the arid West and briefly
discusses appraisal of land with
water rights in condemnation pro-
ceedings.2 Lyle Summers dis-
cusses different types of water rights
encountered in the western states,
the economic forces behind water
transfers, and market balance con-
cepts.3 C. K. Thompson applies
several appraisal techniques to es-
timate the value of irrigation rights
in central Idaho.4 In general, ap-
praisal literature has not addressed
water rights valuation, even though
the demand for water rights ap-
praisals is rapidly growing, partic-
ularly in the western United States.5
This article begins with a dis-
cussion of preliminary considera-
tions of water rights valuations,
followed by determination of high-
est and best use. Applications of
the sales comparison approach, in-
come capitalization approach,
analysis of land value differentials,
and development-cost techniques
are given. The article concludes
with special sections on valuing
water for municipal uses and ac-
counting for water quality


Water rights valuation is a three-
step process. First, the character-
istics of the water right must be
thoroughly identified and de-
scribed. Any features that can af-
fect the right's value to its current
owner and potential buyers and
lessors must be evaluated. These
may include long-term average and
minimum (firm) yield, quality of
the water source and associated
treatment costs for various uses,
legal issues affecting the security
of the right, location of current use,
and costs of transferring water to
an alternative location or use. Sec-
ond, the concept of value suited to
the purpose must be identified.
Third, market conditions that af-
fect current and future water de-
mand and supply must be assessed.
J. F. Ross emphasizes the im-
portance of quantifying the historic
yield of a water right and estimat-
ing future long-term average
yields.6 He recommends convert-
ing flow rates into acre-feet (the
volume that would cover one acre
to a depth of one foot) per year to
provide a common denominator of
yield for valuation. He also sug-
gests examining historic diversion
records and consulting with expe-
rienced water resource profession-
als to estimate long-term average
yield, annual variations in yield,
and firm yield. The latter two
characterizations of yield are of

2. E. J. Skeen, "Water Rights in Relation to the Appraisal of Land," The Appraisal Journal (July
1975): 373-80.
3. C. Lyle Summers, "An Economic Framework for Valuing Transient Water Rights in the Arid
West," The Appraisal Journal (January 1981): 9-14.
4. C. K. Thompson, "Busterback Ranch. Valuing Water Rights in a Scenic Easement Area," The
Appraisal Journal (April 1987): 169-79.
5. Water Market Update (November 1988), for example, lists professionals and firms that spe-
cialize in water rights appraisals.
6. J. F. Ross, "Valuation of Water Rights for Acquisition, Condemnation and Taxation Purposes,"
Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute, vol. 30 (1984): 563-93.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights


( 1

Regardless of the
valuation approach
taken, careful
hydrologic, legal,
and economic
research is a
necessary first step
in valuing water
rights. The
expertise of
appraisers, and
professionals should
be sought.

prime interest to municipal water
buyers wanting to know what min-
imum yield they can rely on in dry
years. W. Fischer and W. R.
Fischer emphasize the importance
of clarifying contingencies and
ambiguities in water rights titles and
investigating any competing claims
on surface and groundwater re-
sources associated with the right.7
Ambiguities and competing claims
may come not only from other cur-
rent users of the stream system or
aquifer but also from federal and
tribal reserved rights and from the
Public Trust Doctrine and public
interest clauses in state water codes.
In fact, some observers argue that
reserved rights and public interest
considerations will have an in-
creasing influence on the security,
priority, and manner of use of water
rights in the years ahead.8
One final preliminary issue con-
cerns the many different defini-
tions of value. A clear understand-
ing of the type of value being
estimated is mandatory. A public
agency may want to value water
rights in such a way that all exter-
nal and public goods values asso-
ciated with a water right or new
supplies are incorporated. Private
firms most likely will wish to eval-
uate only the effects of a third party
that they are required by law to
consider.9 Of the various types of
value referred to in the appraisal
profession, market value serves as
the basis for most appraisals. In

some water rights appraisals,
though, an alternative concept of
value may be relevant. Value in use
is based on the productivity of an
economic good to its owner or user
and is a valid substitute for market
value when the use of the good is
so specialized that it has no de-
monstrable market.o Because dif-
ferent concepts of value can gen-
erate different dollar estimates, it
is important to choose the concept
of value most suited to the purpose
of the valuation and the value es-
timate's use.
Regardless of the valuation ap-
proaches taken, careful hydro-
logic, legal, and economic re-
search is a necessary first step in
valuing water rights. The expertise
required may necessitate input from
engineers, hydrologists, attorneys,
economists, appraisers, and other
knowledgeable professionals.


Appraisals based on market value
require that determination of high-
est and best use be a basis for val-
uation. Highest and best use in
property appraisals is defined as the
reasonable and probable use of the
property that generates the highest
present value as of the appraisal
date.12 Determining the highest and
best use of water rights can be more
complicated than in real estate ap-
praisals. Water, unlike land, can
be applied not only to new uses but

7. W. Fischer and W. R. Fischer, "Title and Valuation of Water Rights," Rocky Mountain Min-
eral Law Institute, vol. 30 (1984): 16-1-16-35.
8. C. F. Wilkinson, *Public Interest Constraints on Water Transfers." In Water Marketing, edited
by S. Shupe (Denver. University of Denver College of Law, 1986), 2.13-12.24. Also, J. E.
Thorson, "Public Rights at the Headwaters," American Water Works Association Journal (Oc-
tober 1986): 72-78. Also, G. D. Weatherford and S. J. Shupe, "Reallocating Water in the
West," American Water Works Associnaton Journal (October 1986): 63-71.
9. B. G. Colby, "The Legal Setting for Water Market Development in the Southwest," Natural
Resources Journal, vol. 28 (1988): 21-37.
10. American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers, The Appraisal of Real Estate, 8th ed. (Chicago:
American Inst. of Real Estate Appraisers, 1983).
11. Sections of this discussion are adapted from B. C. Saliba, "Highest and Best Use in Water
Rights Appraisals," Water Market Update (February 1987): 11-12.
12. American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers, The Appraisal ofRural Property (Chicago: American
Inst. of Real Estate Appraisers. 1983), 19.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

also can be traL rred to different
locations, thereby providing a large
potential for alternative watei Uses
and locations that generate higher
economic returns.
Determining highest and best use
in water rights appraisals involves
legal, engineering, and economic
feasibility issues. Proposed water
transfers to higher valued uses may
encounter legal restrictions. The
feasibility of a transfer may be
governed by engineering con-
straints imposed by water convey-
ance facilities and other physical
limitations. Economic determi-
nants such as local water supply and
demand conditions must also be
considered. For instance, in some
areas of the West there are more
willing sellers (typically farmers
facing low commodity prices) than
buyers (i.e., expanding municipal-
ities and industries). In such cases,
appraisal of an irrigation water right
based on urban water values as the
highest and best use would fail to
account for the fact that urban buy-
ers will purchase only a select por-
tion of available irrigation rights.
An appraiser must consider all
the characteristics of the water right
that affect the costs of legally
transferring and physically deliv-
ering the water to a higher valued
use. To evaluate the likelihood of
the subject property being trans-
ferred to a new use and location,
transfer costs must be compared to
the costs of alternative water sup-
plies available to potential buyers.
If alternative water sources are more
expensive, thus less attractive to
buyers, than acquiring and trans-
ferring the appraised water right,
appraisal of the right based on a
higher valued use may be realistic.
Appraising irrigation rights in
rural areas requires assessing the

likelihood that waC lights will be
transferred to urban uses. During
the 1980s, Phoenix-area city gov-
ernments and private businesses
purchased over 100,000 acres of
farmland to acquire an estimated
300,000 acre-feet of water rights.
In this market, one of the most im-
portant factors influencing the at-
tractiveness of a specific water right
to urban buyers is the cost of trans-
porting water from its current lo-
cation to Phoenix. Buyers hope to
use the Central Arizona Project
(CAP) aqueduct to avoid the costs
of developing their own convey-
ance systems; thus, water rights
associated with property adjacent
to the canal are in high demand.
Agricultural properties located in
the vicinity of the aqueduct with
an estimated 100,000 acre-feet of
groundwater rights were purchased
in 1985 through 1988 for prices
ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 per
acre foot. 3
Specific locational patterns of
water rights acquisitions are
emerging. Arizona law holds that
an exporter of groundwater may be
liable for damages imposed on other
water users in the basin of origin.14
Hoping to avoid conflicts with other
water users in the area of origin,
some urban purchasers are seeking
to buy out all other water rights in
the basins from which they intend
to export water. Thus, water rights
in basins where urban acquisitions
have already occurred have an in-
creased chance of being purchased
for export to urban areas. In ad-
dition to these locational consid-
erations, the attractiveness of a
surface water irrigation right is in-
fluenced by its priority date, his-
toric variability in yield, and the
adequacy of evidence on historical
beneficial use of the right.

13. B. C. Saliba and D. B. Bush, "Market Activity in the Southwestern States." In Water Markets
in Theory and Practice: Market Transfers. Water Values and Public Policy (Boulder, Colo.:
Westview Press, 1987). See chapter 5.
14. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. Sec. 45-544, 45-545.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights

In addition to
considerations, the
attractiveness of a
surface water
irrigation right is
influenced by its
priority date,
historic variability
in yield, and the
adequacy of
evidence on
historical beneficial
use of the right.

Analysis of the highest and best
use of a water right may indicate
that agriculture is an interim water
use and that eventual transfer to
urban use is highly probable. In
such appraisals, the holding period
during which the water right will
remain in agricultural use must be
estimated, and the discounted value
of net returns to water in agricul-
ture during the interim period must
be calculated. The value of the
water in urban use during the post-
conversion period (discounted back
to present value) must be estimated
and added to the discounted value
in interim agricultural use to real-
istically appraise an agricultural
water right in transition to munic-
ipal or industrial use. To estimate
the holding period, one must know
the rate at which water rights are
being transferred in the area sur-
rounding the subject property. To
calculate net returns to water in
agricultural uses, one can use in-
formation obtained from agricul-
tural extension specialists, county
agents who produce crop produc-
tion budgets, or comparable sales
data on water transfers between
If an appraiser determines that
an immediate transfer to a new use
or location is 1) legally and tech-
nically feasible, 2) probable given
supply and demand for water rights
in the new location, and 3) gen-

rates the highest present value,
then the final value estimate should
be based on the new use or loca-
tion using one of a number of tech-
niques for water rights valuation
being developed and applied in the
western states. These include sales
comparison and income capitaliza-
tion approaches, analysis of land
value differentials between parcels
with and without water, develop-
ment-cost analysis, and inferential
and contingent valuation.'6
The water values reported in this
article are drawn from a variety of
sources and are reported in 1986
dollars per acre-foot regardless of
the year of the original study being
reviewed.7 This is done to facili-
tate comparison of water values in
alternative uses generated by dif-
ferent studies conducted in differ-
ent years. The values reported are,
unless otherwise noted, on a per-
acre-foot per-year basis. To com-
pare annual values per acre-foot to
the value of a water right that pro-
vides access to water year after
year, the present value of the per-
petual stream of annual values must
be calculated.'8


The sales comparison approach in-
volves comparing the subject prop-
erty with similar properties that

15. Net returns to water that will be received in some future year can be converted to present
values through discounting. The formula used is:
PV = NR(t)/[(l + r']
Where PV represents the present value of a net return to be received in year t, designated
NR(t), discounted using an interest rate r.
16. The author appreciates suggestions for this discussion of valuation approaches provided by
R. E. Dietrich of the appraisal firm Burke, Hansen, Homan, Tucson, Ariz.
17. D. C. Gibbons, The Economic Value of Water (Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future,
18. Suppose, for instance, that the long-run net returns to water for a particular farmer's crop mix
are estimated to be $30 per acre-foot per year. The present value of that stream of net returns
provides an indication of how much an acre-foot of water right is worth to that farmer in
irrigation. The present value of a perpetual stream of annual returns of $30 per acre-foot dis-
counted at 5% is $600. A farmer who was certain of receiving at least $30 per acre-foot of
water in annual net returns could reasonably accept no less than $600 per acre-foot of firm
yield for his water rights.
19. Parts of this discussion are adapted from B. C. Saliba, "The Comparable Sales Approach,"
Water Market Update (January 1987): 11-12.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

have recently oeen sold. Prices
generated from comparable sug-
gest a range within which the value
of the subject property should fall.
Because even similar properties
may differ in financing and other
conditions, dollar adjustments are
made to the sales prices to reflect
these differences.
Market prices convey specific
information on the value to the
buyer and seller of the right being
transferred at the time and location
of the transfer. The negotiated price
must be less than the buyer's as-
sessment of the capitalized net re-
turns expected from acquiring the
water rights, including their con-
tribution to the surplus productiv-
ity of land and other investments.
The negotiated price must also be
greater than the seller's estimate of
projected capitalized net returns. If
these conditions are not met, there
is no economic incentive to imple-
ment the transfer, and a market
transaction will not occur. Chal-
lenges in applying price informa-
tion from specific transactions to
water rights held by other users in
other locations and time periods
involve evaluating comparable and
adjusting comparable sales prices
to reflect the characteristics of the
subject property.
Additional considerations arise
when the valuation is being per-
formed for a public agency. Under
competitive market conditions, the
price negotiated between a buyer
and a seller of a water right reflects
the marginal value of the units of
water exchanged and, thus, can
serve as an indicator of water value.
A social measure of value, how-
ever, should also be taken into ac-
count; namely, the effect of the
transaction on those who were not
part of the price negotiation pro-
cess. They could include neigh-

boring well owners whose pump-
ing costs are adversely affected;
fishermen whose trout streams are
disrupted; or local governments,
which can experience declining tax
bases when water sales shift re-
sources out of the local economy.
Public agencies use different ac-
counting stances depending on
whether they are interested in a lo-
cal, state, or national assessment
of values and effects. Ideally, a
measure of water value used by a
public agency to evaluate water-re-
lated policies and projects should
fully reflect potential beneficia-
ries' willingness to pay for incre-
mental changes in available water
quantity or quality, as well as any
positive or negative third-party re-
percussions. Market prices, though,
seldom provide this ideal measure
of social value.20 Private individ-
uals are more likely to be inter-
ested in the value of water in spe-
cific uses such as irrigation or
municipal water supply, and mar-
ket prices can often be helpful in
estimating these values.
In many areas, sales of water
rights occur sporadically, often in-
volve the same buyers (i.e., mu-
nicipalities, developers, or power
companies), and have varying le-
gal and hydrologic characteristics.
Under these circumstances, it is
necessary to determine to what de-
gree the buyer or seller and water
right characteristics affect sales
prices, to adjust the sales prices of
comparable so that they represent
the value of the subject property.
Analysis of water market prices in-
dicates tdat priority date, water
quality, legal restrictions on trans-
fer, and t ie buyer's intended use
(i.e., irrigation versus urban de-
velopment) can all significantly af-
fet sales es of water rights. For
example, water rights in New

20. For more discussion of market prices as a measure of value for public project evaluation see
B. C. Saliba, D. B. Bush, W. E. Martin, and T. C. Brown, "Do Water Market Prices Ap-
propriately Measure Water Values?" Natural Resources Journal, vol. 27 (1987): 617-51.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights



i.._Y ~ ~ ~ I-ii- ... ii

Though transactions
involving both land
and water should
not be ignored,
only those
transactions in
which water
acquisition is a
primary motivation
should be used as
comparable for
water rights
appraisals; thus,
information on
buyers' motivations
is crucial.

Mexico's Gila-San Francisco Ba-
sin with priority dates preceding
1930 generally sell for about $300
more per acre-foot than compara-
ble rights with later priority dates.
Water rights located in the more
economically developed Gila sub-
basin sell for at lest $1,000 per acre-
foot more than comparable rights
located in the less developed San
Francisco subbasin. (In the Gila-San
Francisco Basin, water rights can-
not be conveyed across subbasin
boundaries. ) When price and
transaction data are available, such
analyses can indicate the adjust-
ments needed in applying the sales
comparison approach.
Transactions involving both land
and water cannot be ignored when
they encompass a significant por-
tion of water market activity, as in
Arizona. Nevertheless, only those
transactions in which water acqui-
sition is a primary motivation
should be used as comparable for
water rights appraisals; thus, in-
formation on buyers' motivations
is crucial. Many land purchases by
Arizona cities and developers are
solely for the purpose of acquiring
water rights. Mandatory land ac-
quisition is incidental to the buyer,
and the price paid can correctly be
attributed to the water rights. In
some transactions, however, es-
pecially when irrigated land is ad-
jacent to an urban area, the buyer
plans to develop the land. Further
investigation is then necessary to
separate the total purchase price into
land and water rights values. The
quantity of water acquired by buy-
ing irrigated land often exceeds the
quantity needed to support devel-
opment on the land acquired. State
laws and access to conveyance fa-
cilities permitting, some portion of

21. D. B. Bush and B. C. Saliba, in "Commodity Identification and Price Behavior in Western
Water Markets." Paper presented at the American Agricultural Association Annual Meetings,
Reno, Nevada, August 1986. These estimates of value differentials associated with character-
istics of water rights are based on statistical analysis of 98 transactions in the Gila-San Fran-
cisco Basin.
22. Thompson, n. 4.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

the water may be used at other lo-
cations. In this situation, the water
rights have value both for on-site
and off-site uses.
The diversity of institutional and
economic settings affects the use-
fulness of the sales comparison ap-
proach. First, prices emerging in
one market will not necessarily be
relevant to water values in another.
Values are site specific. Second,
even within the same market re-
gion, prices observed for one type
of water right do not necessarily
convey useful information about the
value of a different type of water
right. Regions with active water
rights markets may have a dozen
different types of rights with dif-
ferent legal and economic charac-
teristics and degrees of transfera-
bility. Careful study of state water
law and local water management
institutions is necessary to define
and differentiate these commodities.
A recent application of the sales
comparison approach to valuing
water rights in irrigated agriculture
is described in C. K. Thompson's
article, "Busterback Ranch: Valu-
ing Water Rights in a Scenic Ease-
ment Area."22 Thompson applied a
combination of the sales compari-
son and the land value differential
approaches to appraise the market
value of water rights held by an
Idaho rancher. Water rights may
not be sold separately from land in
the watershed in which the ranch
was located, so he analyzed recent
sales of irrigated land, dry land,
homesites, and recreation lands to
determine the different market val-
ues associated with different types
of properties. Thompson deter-
mined that the highest and best use
of the subject property with all of
its existing water rights was a




combination of mesites, recre-
ational land, irrigated pasture, and
range land. The prospective water
rights purchaser wanted the ranch-
er's most senior water rights, rights
that are essential to mid- and late-
summer irrigation on the ranch. The
highest and best use of ranch prop-
erty without water rights available
for the last half of the summer ir-
rigation season was the conversion
of over 1,700 acres of irrigated land
to dry range. The difference be-
tween the "with" and "without"
value estimate is the value of those
mid- and late-summer irrigation
rights to the rancher and provides
an estimate of the minimum ac-
ceptable price for these senior water
rights. Water value on a per-acre-
foot basis was not derived because
the water rights being purchased
were of several different priority
dates and were decreed in terms of
flow rates (cubic feet per second),
making it difficult to estimate a
value per acre-foot. The analysis
indicated that the total value of the
2,282-acre ranch would be re-
duced by $768,515 if the water
rights were removed.
In general, the sales comparison
approach should be supplemented
by other techniques when valuing
water rights for irrigation. R. A.
Young notes that only a small frac-
tion of agricultural water use is in-
fluenced by urban demands ex-
pressed through market processes.23
Much irrigation water is supplied
under public project contracts and
is insulated from market pressures
because the water is not readily
marketable, or it is not attractive
to urban buyers because of the
expense to deliver and treat it for
municipal uses. Under these cir-
cumstances, market prices will be
above the marginal value of water

23. R. A. Young, "Why Are There so Few Transactions Among Water Users?" American Journal
of Agricultural Economics, vol. 68 (1986): 1143-51.
24. R. L. Gaidner and T. A. Miller, "Price Behavior in the Water Market in Northeastern Col-
orado," Water Resources Bulletin, vol. 19 (1983): 557-62.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights

in irrigation. R. L. Gardner and
T. A. Miller's study2 and Young's
observation both imply that there
is not necessarily a close relation-
ship between water's value in crop
production and market prices ne-
gotiated in agricultural-to-urban
water transfers. Use of market
prices to value water supplies for
irrigation could significantly over-
estimate the value of the additional
Given the complexities involved
in using the sales comparison ap-
proach, use of other techniques such
as income capitalization, land value
differential analysis, and develop-
ment-cost estimation is recom-
mended in establishing a defensi-
ble estimate of value.


The income capitalization ap-
proach involves analyzing the
stream of net benefits a property
will generate over time and con-
verting this net benefit stream into
a value estimate. The approach is
based on the principle that a rela-
tionship exists between annual net
returns attributable to property and
the price that property can com-
mand in the marketplace.
The income capitalization ap-
proach is useful for valuing water
rights being used in an activity in
which annual net returns attribut-
able to the water rights can be
identified and quantified. Water is
combined with other inputs in most
activities, however, and it may be
difficult to separate the contribu-
tion of water to net returns. For ex-
ample, irrigated crops are pro-
duced using not only water but also
land, agricultural chemicals, la-
bor, field equipment, and manage-

The income
approach is useful
for valuing water
rights being used in
an activity in which
annual net returns
attributable to the
water rights can be
identified and


"I I I

_ ;i-_..

'I-. i, '-

ment capabilities. In urban real es-
tate development, water rights are
combined with land and improve-
ments to produce developed prop-
erty. In recreational areas, water in
streams and lakes is combined with
wildlife and other environmental
amenities to provide benefits.
Techniques have been devel-
oped to separate the contribution
of water in some uses. The land
value differential approach is one
such technique. The residual
method has also been used to eval-
uate the contribution of water to net
returns in irrigated agriculture. To-
tal revenues generated by irrigated
crop production minus all nonwa-
ter production costs gives a resid-
ual that indicates the maximum
amount the producer could pay for
water and still break even. This
amount, divided by the quantity of
water used in irrigation, represents
the maximum average one would
be willing to pay per acre-foot per
year (the average value product) for
the quantity of water currently being
applied. The farm budget approach
can also be used to identify will-
ingness to pay for additional units
of water (marginal value product)
by estimating the contribution to
total revenues minus all nonwater
production costs that would be
generated by applying one more
unit of water. Average and mar-
ginal value products calulated from
annual farm budgets generate water
values for a single year. To esti-
mate the amount a farmer would
pay for perpetual access to addi-
tional water (a water right), it is
necessary to calculate the present

value of a perpetual stream of an-
nual average or marginal value
Reliance on average and mar-
ginal value products for irrigation
uses may not produce a sound es-
timate of water's value to farmers
in areas where urban interests are
buying water rights from irriga-
tors. In a transfer from a farm to a
city water supply organization, the
lowest price acceptable to a farmer
(the reserve price) is based on the
marginal value product of water in
agriculture if a small proportion of
the rights are sold, or the average
value product if rhts for the whole
farm are sold. Nevertheless,
farmers may also view water rights
as an appreciating asset and add
speculative value to their reserve
price, as Gardner and Miller found
in their analysis of Colorado water
market transactions.26
Young and S. L. Gray describe
the farm budget residual method for
assigning a value to water and cau-
tion that the validity of the esti-
mates depend on how fully the fol-
lowing assumptions are satisfied.27
All nonwater factors must be paid
according to their marginal value
productivities, as would occur in
a perfectly competitive market
for agricultural inputs. If there are
other inputs that are unpriced, not
competitively priced, or not em-
ployed to the point at which their
price equals their marginal value
product, then the residual method
will generate inaccurate estimates
of water values. The farm budget
residual approach has been applied
widely to impute a value to water

25. Marginal value product measures the economic returns sacrificed by deleting a unit of water
from the crop production activity in which water generates the lowest turns (the "marginal"
crop). Average value prodet m sa economic returns sacrificed by removing water from
the whole farm operation and tht accourns for the returns to water for all of the various
irrigation crops produced. Average value product will exceed marginal value product for farms
growing several crops with differing etuns to water.
26. Gardner and Miller.
27. R. A. Young and S. L. Gray, "Input-Output Models, Economic Surplus, and the Evaluation
of State or Regional Water Plans," Water Resources Research (December 1985): 1819-23.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

in irrigation. A ew examples of
studies in the western states are
M. M. Kelso, W. E. Martin, and
L. E. Mack applied linear pro-
gramming to 150 representative
farm budget scenarios for various
areas in Arizona to develop mar-
ginal value functions for irrigation
water.2 The resultant annual val-
ues range from $4 per acre-foot for
grain sorghum to $221 per acre-foot
for cotton. These represent the
maximum a farmer could pay for
water and still cover all other costs
of production. A study of the Salt
River area of Arizona by Martin
and G. B. Snider indicates short-
run marginal values from $31 per
acre-foot for grain sorghum, to $157
for lettuce, to over $1,200 for dry
onions.?2 D. B. Bush and Martin
found that the short-run marginal
value product for water in growing
cotton, alfalfa, and wheat in three
central Arizona counties in 1984
ranged from $36 per acre-foot for
alfalfa to $124 for cotton." C. R.
Shumway used the farm budget re-
sidual approach to derive values for
irrigation water on the west side of
the San Joaquin Valley ranging
from $20 per acre-foot for saf-
flower to over $53 for melons."3
N. R. Gollehon et al. examined the
marginal value of irrigation water
in 11 Rocky Mountain subregions
given a 20% reduction in irrigation
water availability.32 They found
marginal values greater than $20
per acre-foot in two regions, be-

tween $10 and $2per acre-foot
for four regions, and below $10 per
acre-foot for the remaining regions.
Bush and Martin emphasize that
crop prices received by farmers are
the dominant factor in determining
the marginal value of water in ir-
rigation. Changes in energy costs
of pumping and pumping lifts also
play an important role in determin-
ing how much farmers are willing
to pay for water rights.
Capitalization of rental income
is a technique used by appraisers
to value real estate. Water rental
prices, however, are often influ-
enced by forces other than eco-
nomic costs and returns. Cities and
utility companies, for example, tend
to hold a much larger portfolio of
water rights than are needed in a
typical year as a hedge against
drought and rapid growth of water
demand in their service areas. They
often rent unused water to irriga-
tors at nominal rates simply to cover
their fixed costs of owning water
rights. These types of rentals ac-
count for a large proportion of rental
activity in many areas, yet the rental
rates are unrelated to market prices
for water rights. Comparison of
water rental and sales prices in
several states indicates that capi-
talized rental prices do not consis-
tently, or even typically, approach
representative sales prices.34
Therefore, when estimating the
value of a water right, capitaliza-
tion of water rental rates may not
be a reliable technique.

28. M. M. Kelso, W. E. Martin, and L. E. Mack, Water Supplies and Economic Growth in an
Arid Enviroment (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973).
29. W. E. Martin and G. B. Snider, "Valuation of Water and Forage from the Salt-Verde Basin
of Arizona." Unpublished port to the U.S. Forest Service, 1979.
30. D. B. Bush and W. E. Martin, "Potential Cots and Benefits to Arizona Agriculture of the
Central Arizona Prqect." Technical Bulletin No. 254, University of Arizona College of Ag-
riculture (January 1986).
31. C. R. Shumway, *Derived Demand for Irigaion Water: The California Aqueduct," Souther
Journal of Agriculr Ecoonoics (December 1973): 195-200.
32. N. R. Golleho, et al., "Impacts on Irrigated Agriculture For Energy Development in the
Rocky Mountain Region," Southwestern Review of Manaement and Economics (Spring 1987):
33. Bush and Martin.
34. Saliba and Bush, n. 13.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights


.,"I I


One approach that may be useful
in valuing agricultural water rights
is to examine the values of agri-
cultural land or other income-pro-
ducing property with and without
water rights. J. F. Ross suggests
that comparing market data on the
price of dry land with market prices
for irrigated land may be used to
establish a price differential that
represents the increased productiv-
ity attributable to the water rights."
Ross cautions that the validity
and accuracy of this technique de-
pends on the quantity and reliabil-
ity of available market sales data.
L. Hartman and R. Anderson ana-
lyzed dry land and irrigated farm
sales data in northeastern Colorado
from 1955 to 1960 and concluded
that water rights had a value of ap-
proximately $111 per acre-foot (in
1986 dollars).3 This estimate was
two to three times higher than the
price at which Colorado-Big
Thompson Project (C-BT) water
rights were selling during the same
period and in the same area, indi-
cating a discrepancy between val-
ues suggested by the sales com-
parison and the land value
differential approaches. The au-
thors attribute this discrepancy to
the fact that the C-BT market was
just developing and did not repre-
sent a competitive area-wide mar-
ket at the time their study was con-
ducted. J. P. Crouter analyzed
farmland sales in northeastern Col-
orado's Weld County during 1970.3
His study did not generate an es-
timate of water's value in dollars
per acre-foot but did indicate that
marginal values were related to at-

tnOes of the farm property such
as location and soil quality.
Examination of land value dif-
ferentials is a useful approach in
areas where parcels with and with-
out water rights are routinely sold,
producing available data with which
to conduct an analysis. The ap-
proach would be of limited value
in Arizona, for example, because
nearly all cropland is irrigated and
sold with water rights. Where dry
land and irrigated crop production
coexist, the potential for applying
the land value differential method
is much greater.


The development-cost approach or
least-cost alternative is an estima-
tion of the current cost of repro-
ducing or replacing real estate im-
provements. In the case of water
rights, it would require estimating
the least-cost alternative for creat-
ing a water supply similar in legal
and hydrologic terms to the subject
property's water right, or the costs
of operating without that water right
through water conservation and re-
cycling. This approach is based on
the assumption that the costs of al-
ternatives to purchasing water
rights, such as water conservation,
or constructing facilities and ser-
vices to create a new water supply,
indicate the price an organization
is willing to pay for an existent
right. This is a valid assumption
only if there is evidence that water
users in the area have actually been
paying or would be willing to pay
costs at the levels estimated to de-

35. Ross, n.6.
36. L. Hartman and R. Anderson, "Estimating the Value of Irrigation Water From Farm Sales
Data in Northeast Colorado," Journal of Farm Economics, vol. 44 (1962): 207-13.
37. J. P. Crouter, "An Examination of an Implicit Water Rights Market Using Hedonic Estima-
tion." PhD diss., University of Illinois, 1982.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

i I I ,.i I I

The least-cost
approach is based
on the assumption
that the costs of
alternatives to
purchasing water
rights indicate the
price an
organization is
willing to pay for
an existent right.

ij I

I .I I I

velop addition) ter supplies. In
the absence of such evidence, there
is no reason to believe that there
would be any prospective buyers
for water rights priced at devel-
opment cost. An estimate of value
must be related to market demand.
In general, the development-cost
approach is a last resort for valuing
water rights because it is not nec-
essarily related to willingness to pay
for water rights or to net benefits
generated by additional water sup-
plies." At best, it serves as an
upper limit on water rights values.
The least-cost alternative approach
is used in valuing water for indus-
trial processes and hydropower
Water costs are typically a small
proportion of industrial production
or processing costs, and there is
little data with which to estimate
industrial water demand functions.
Studies indicate that industrial water
demand is quite unresponsive to
water costs. D. C. Gibbons notes
that, due to lack of better ways to
estimate value, industrial values
have been equated with the indus-
try's cost of recycling water." This
approach is based on the assump-
tion that an industrial user would
pay no more for additional water
supplies than the cost to treat and
reuse water already being used in
the industrial process. The least-cost
alternative approach serves only as
an upper bound on the value of ad-
ditional water.
Young and Gray estimated the

cost of shifting to cycling water
using evaporative cooling pro-
cesses to be $8 to $13 per acre-foot
of water recycled for the electric
power generating sector.4 C. S.
Russell estimated these costs to be
$7 per acre-foot for the electric
power sector and $15 per acre-foot
of water recycled for cooling in
petroleum refineries.4 Because
many power plants and refineries
already recycle with evaporative
cooling methods, further recycling
will have to rely on more sophis-
ticated, expensive technologies. For
example, demineralization and dry
cooling recycling systems would
only be economical at new water
supply costs of $800 to $1700 per
acre-foot.2 Additional water re-
cycling for cotton textile finishing
would become economical only
with costs of $177 per acre-foot for
new water supplies; demineraliza-
tion would be economical only if
the industry faced costs of $836 per
acre-foot for new water. A study
of waterrecycling in meat packing
operations indicates that existent
reuse operations have a marginal
cost of from $436 to $608 per acre-
foot recycled.43
Because water costs are typi-
cally a small proportion of indus-
trial production costs, industrial
users may be able to absorb sub-
stantial price increases without sig-
nificantly increasing their costs of
production. J. C. Anderson and
J. E. Keith"4 found that a $200-per-
acre-foot increase in the price of

38. A. Randall, Resource Economics 2d ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1987).
39. Gibbons, n. 17, 47-55.
40. Young and Gray, n. 27.
41. C. S. Russell, "Industrial Water Use." Report to the National Water Commission, Sec. 2,
1970 (Washington, D.C.: Water Resources Council, 1970).
42. K. L. Kollar, R. Brewer, and H. McAulty, "An Analysis of Price/Cost Sensitivity of Water
Use in Selected Manufacturing industries. Bureau of Domestic Comerce Staff Study (Wash-
ington, D.C.: Water Resources Council, 1976), 8-18.
43. J. Kane and R. Osanowski, "An Evaluation for Water Remse Using Advanced Waste Treat-
ment at a Meat Packing Plant." Proceedings of the 38th Industrial Waste Conference, 1981,
44. J. C. Anderson and J. E. Keith, "Energy and the Colorado River," Natural Resources Journal
(April 1977): 157-68.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights


Water costs are
typically a small
proportion of
production or
processing costs,
and there is little
data with which to
estimate industrial
water demand


-T- l._

water would increase costs of elec-
tricity production in coal-fired
plants by only 1% to 2%. Many in-
dustrial users can begin to recycle
or increase recycling of their cur-
rent water supplies and compare the
additional recycling costs to mar-
ket prices for water rights when
deciding whether to acquire addi-
tional water rights or implement
additional recycling.
The value of water in hydro-
electric generation can also be in-
ferred using a variation of the least-
cost approach. Gibbons examined
the cost savings possible with hy-
droelectric power as compared to
the alternatives of coal-fired steam
generating plants (the next least
costly method) and gas-turbine
electric plants (a more costly tech-
nology). For the Colorado River
hydroelectric system, the short-run
cost savings of hydropower com-
pared with coal-fired steam gen-
erating plants are $31 per acre-foot.
Savings reach $76 per acre-foot
when compared with gas-turbine
electric plants.45 These savings
represent the additional costs of re-
placing the hydropower production
lost resulting from an acre-foot de-
crease in flow with a more expen-
sive source of electricity and can
be thought of as short-run marginal
values. As Gibbons notes, there are
reliability, facility, longevity, and
environmental advantages of hy-
dropower that are not incorporated
into the marginal value estimates
cited. Federal evaluations of hy-
dropower facilities typically assign
a 5% to 10% credit above cost-

savings to hydropower generation
to account for its other advantages.46


City governments, municipal water
purveyors, and urban developers
are major water buyers in the
southwestern states, even though
municipal use of water accounts for
less than 10% of total consumptive
water use in the United States.47
Municipal water demand for cur-
rent and future use is a key force
in western water markets. Munic-
ipal water values reflect multiple
water uses by urban dwellers, with
different values associated with
different uses. Water used for in-
door purposes such as drinking,
cooking, and bathing is thought to
be the most highly valued and least
responsive to price changes. Water
used outdoors for landscape water-
ing and swimming pools is valued
somewhat less, though Young and
Gray suggest that the value urban
residents derive from water for ir-
rigating lawns is approximately
$172 per acre-foot.48 This value is
above the marginal value of water
in irrigating most crops but below
Young and Gray's estimate of raw
water's $305 derived value for in-
door uses. Nonresidential uses for
commercial and industrial estab-
lishments, and public buildings and
grounds also fall under municipal
water use. Residential uses, how-
ever, generally account for the
largest portion." In some anal-
yses, summer and winter urban

45. Gibbons, n. 17, 94.
46. U.S. Dept. of Energy, Hydroelectric Power Evaluation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1979), 3-6.
47. Gibbons, n. 17, 7.
48. R. A. Young and S. L. Gray, Economic Value of Water: Concepts and Empirical Estimates.
Technical Report, U.S. National Water Commission, National Technical Information Service,
PB210356, March 1972. Updated figures (cited in this text in 1986 dollars) on Young and
Gray's 1972 report are provided in R. A. Young, "Direct and Indirect Regional Impacts of
Competition for Irrigation Water." In Water Scarcity, edited by E. A. Engelbert (Berkley:
University of California Press, 1984), 301-29.
49. Gibbons, n. 17, 8.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989


_ I ~I 1 I

water demand -ave been differen-
tiated. Outdoor uses constitute a
S large proportion of water require-
ments in the summer and a mini-
mal proportion in the winter; thus,
two separate demand relationships
are needed to reflect seasonal
changes in the nature of water de-
mand and its responsiveness to price
Estimates of willingness to pay
require estimates of quantity de-
manded over a wide range of ob-
served prices. In general, water
rates for urban residents do not
change much in real terms (i.e.,
they rise at approximately the in-
flation rate) so that the opportunity
to observe how demand changes
over a substantial price range is
rare. Gibbons suggests, from ana-
lyzing data on Tucson water con-
sumption, that marginal water val-
ues in that city, given a 10%
reduction in water availability,
would be about $109 per acre-foot
in the winter and $37 per acre-foot
in the summer."
In the majority of municipal de-
mand studies, the focus is on the
effect of price changes on demand,
not marginal water values. Lack of
price variation makes it difficult to
reliably estimate urban demand
curves that could be used to value
additional water supplies. Prices
paid by urban consumers for deliv-
ered water do not shed much light
on how much a city water purvey-
or might be willing to pay for ad-
ditional rights to untreated surface
water or groundwater.
Young notes that values for raw
* water and treated water delivered
to residences are not directly com-
parable because quite different

water commoditieare involved."
Martin and J. F. Thomas found that
willingness to pay for raw water
accounts for only about 12% of
willingness to pay for delivered
potable water in Tucson.52 It is the
municipal demand for raw water
that should be compared to water
values in irrigation and other uses,
not what urban consumers actually
pay or are willing to pay for treated
delivered water. Market prices for
water rights generally apply to raw
water and are not comparable to the
value of treated water delivered to
end users.
Municipal buyers often purchase
water rights as a hedge against
drought and to encourage eco-
nomic growth; these motivations
give water rights value above and
beyond their value in satisfying
current urban water demand. The
sales comparison approach may be
the most promising technique for
valuing water for urban develop-
ment because city governments and
developers are active in the market
for water rights.53


Water quality affects the range of
uses for water, the cost of treating
it for specific uses, and its value in
those uses. Gibbons suggests that
water quality issues are important
to water rights valuation for sev-
eral reasons.5 First, different uses
require different minimal quality
levels. Water used in food pro-
cessing and beverage industries
must meet very strict standards,
while cooling processes often can
use brackish water or treated ef-

50. Ibid., 18.
51. Young, n. 23.
52. W. E. Martin and J. F. Thomas, "Policy Relevance in Studies of Urban Residential Water
Demand," Water Resources Research, vol. 23 (1987): 1735-41.
53. Saliba and Bush, n. 13, describe market activity in seven areas of the West and find munic-
ipalities and developers to be the principal buyers in most areas.
54. Gibbons, n. 17. 46-47.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights

One of the key
factors influencing
the importance of
water quality is
access to
alternative sources.

fluent. Second, water use typically
results in some water quality deg-
radation, and the costs of comply-
ing with water quality regulations
can affect the net value of water to
cities and industry.
There is some anecdotal evi-
dence from market transactions
suggesting that lower quality water
resources command a lower price
in the marketplace than higher
quality resources. Along the East
Slope of the Colorado Rockies
where groundwater may contain
heavy metals, surface water is the
preferred water source for munic-
ipalities, and market activity tends
to focus on surface water rights.
Nevertheless, price differentials
between groundwater rights and
surface water rights cannot be at-
tributed entirely or even primarily
to quality differences because ap-
propriative groundwater rights are
also typically secondary to surface
water rights.5 Surface water is sel-
dom transferred from irrigation to
municipal uses in Utah's Lower
Sevier River Basin because of the
high salinity of the river water."
The market value of groundwater,
which is of a quality suited to a va-
riety of municipal, industrial, and
agricultural uses, is consequently
higher than the market value of
Sevier River water rights that are
used primarily for irrigation and
power plant cooling.
In the lower Arkansas River Ba-
sin, at least two irrigation compa-
nies have had difficulty marketing
water for municipal use. Fort Lyons
Canal Company and Amity Canal
Irrigation Company water is widely
viewed as unsalable to cities. This
perspective is partially based on a
quality concern. Reverse osmosis
would be necessary to bring the

55. Saliba and Bush, n. 13.
56. Ibid.
57. Water Market Update. 1988.
58. Ibid.
59. Water Market Update. (June 1987): 1.

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

"~"-"""-"""~~""~ "IE

water up to municipal standards.
Cities also would have to transport
the water long distances from its
current point of use.57
In the Los Angeles Central Ba-
sin, leasing rates for groundwater
pumping rights have been approx-
imately $118 per acre per year.
However, some groundwater users
whose wells are located in areas
where aquifers are known to be
contaminated have leased their
pumping rights at below-market
rates. The City of Cerritos, for ex-
ample, paid only $95 per acre-foot
for pumping rights leased from
water users whose wells are lo-
cated inside the contaminated area.
Cerritos can exercise the pumping
rights by increasing pumping from
its own wells, which are located
outside of the contaminated zone."
Concern over the long-term
quality of groundwater prompted
the town of Fort Morgan in north-
eastern Colorado to purchase 690
units of water from C-BT in May
1987. Fort Morgan (population
8,700) currently draws its entire
water supply from local ground-
water. For the past decade, offi-
cials have been concerned over high
mineral content and increasing ni-
trate levels in the aquifer caused
by agricultural activity in the area.
The town plans to convert com-
pletely to surface water in the
One of the key factors influenc-
ing the importance of water quality
is access to alternative sources.
Areas that rely on a single source
are willing to pay a premium to as-
sure that the quality of that source
is protected or to secure access to
other high quality sources. For ex-
ample, the East Bay Municipal
Utilities District (MUD), which

- -

- 0
serves over on million customers
in the San Francisco Bay Area, re-
lies on the Mokelumne River Ba-
sin for nearly all of its raw water.
Because the first months of 1988
were critically dry, the district faces
water rationing. The neighboring
Contra Costa Water District of-
fered MUD the use of some of its
water from the Bay Delta. In spite
of the critical shortage it faces,
MUD is unable to use this alter-
native source because it is of sig-
nificantly lower quality than MUD's
usual source, and the treatment re-
quired is beyond the capability of
MUD's system. MUD is seeking
to transfer higher quality water from
the American River, consistent with
its goal of seeking the highest
quality water available. So far, this
transfer has been blocked by en-
vironmental litigation involving the
Bay Delta."6
Although information on the re-
lation of price and water quality
from water market transactions is
sparse, the data support the hy-
pothesis that higher quality water
sources are more highly valued and
that water quality concerns stimu-
late water users to seek new and
higher quality sources.
In the absence of market evi-
dence related to water quality, val-
ues associated with differences in
water quality can be conceptual-
ized as damages avoided. In the
case of agriculture, damages
avoided by using a higher quality
source are reduced crop yields and
increased production costs associ-
ated with using poor quality water.
M. A. Boster and W. E. Martin
found that net returns to central
Arizona farmers may be reduced
when CAP water becomes avail-

60. Water Market Update. 1988.
61. M. A. Boster and W. E. Martin, "Economic Analysis of the Conjunctive Use of Surface and
Groundwater of Differing Prices and Qualities: A Coming Problem for Arizona Agriculture."
Technical Bulletin No. 235 (Tucson: University of Arizona College of Agriculture, 1978).
62. Saliba and Bush. n. 13.
63. Gibbons, n. 17, 46.

Colby: Alternative Approaches to Valuing Water Rights

able, owing partly to negative
effects of salinity on crop yields.6'
It follows that farmers may be
willing to pay less to receive CAP
water than to pump high quality
groundwater; this partially ex-
plains why some irrigation districts
have not opted to contract for CAP
water. In Arizona water markets,
groundwater rights sell for over
twice as much as irrigators pay to
receive CAP water. Lump-sum
groundwater purchase prices were
converted to annualized values for
the purpose of comparing them with
annual CAP rates.62
Avoiding damages by using a
higher quality source could be ap-
plied to other water users as well.
Industries that use water high in
total dissolved solids face higher
operation and maintenance costs
and shorter lifespans for equip-
ment.63 The value of better quality
water could be estimated by eval-
uating costs avoided by switching
from lower to higher quality
There is little empirical evidence
on the relationship between water
quality and water values. Never-
theless, analysis of market trans-
actions involving water sources of
differing quality levels, costs of
treating water to improve quality,
and damages avoided by using
higher quality water can provide
estimates of the amount a water user
might be willing to pay to acquire
higher quality water.


Many different types of public and
private decisions require an esti-
mate of water's value in alternative
uses. Market prices, even when

Because market
prices seldom
provide an ideal
measure of water's
value, the use of
the sales
approach should be
supplemented with
other valuation
techniques such as
the income
approach, analysis
of land value
differentials, and
estimation of
development costs.


1, I

easily identified, seldom provide
an ideal measure of value because
of imperfections in markets for
water rights. Therefore, use of the
sales comparison approach to es-
timate water values should be sup-
plemented with other valuation
techniques such as the income cap-
italization approach, analysis of
land value differentials, and esti-

nation of development costs. A
review of studies that estimate the
value of water in alternative uses
indicates that a wide variety of val-
uation approaches are being ap-
plied and that defensible estimates
of value can be derived for use in
public and private water resource

The Appraisal Journal, April 1989

I I J 1 I

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