266 U.S. 405 (1925), 161, Sanitary District of Chicago v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 161
Citation:266 U.S. 405, 45 S.Ct. 176, 69 L.Ed. 352
Party Name:Sanitary District of Chicago v. United States
Case Date:January 05, 1925
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 405

266 U.S. 405 (1925)

45 S.Ct. 176, 69 L.Ed. 352

Sanitary District of Chicago


United States

No. 161

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 5, 1925

        Argued December 8, 9, 1924




        1. A suit to enjoin an agency of the State Illinois from continuing diversions of water from Lake Michigan which lower that lake and threaten the like effect upon other lakes and connecting waters of the Great Lake System, including the St.Lawrence, is maintainable by the United States not only to remove obstruction to interstate and foreign commerce, but also to carry out treaty obligations to a foreign power. (Treaty of January 11, 1909, with Great Britain, 36 Stat. 2448.) P. 425.

        2. Semble that such a suit might also stand upon an ultimate sovereign interest in the Lakes. Id.

        3. The suit may be brought by the Attorney General, in virtue of his office, and it need not be authorized by a statute. P. 426.

        4. The power of the United States to remove obstructions to interstate and foreign commerce is superior to that of the states to provide for the welfare or necessities of their inhabitants. Id.

        5. Touching interstate and foreign commerce, insofar as the states may act, Congress can override what they have done; but, in matters of imminent and direct national importance, they may not act at all, even where Congress has been silent. Id.

Page 406

        6. Irrespective of any international compact, a state cannot authorize diversions of water from the Great Lakes which will affect their level without the consent of Congress. P. 426.

        7. Even if it were possible for the United States to estop itself by grant or contract from exercising its power in matters of national and international concern, its act must be strictly construed against such a result. P. 427.

        8. The Act of March 2, 1827, granting land to Illinois to open a canal uniting the waters of the Illinois River with those of Lake Michigan vested no irrevocable discretion in the state with regard to the amount of water to be withdrawn from the Lake. Id.

        9. The withdrawal of water in this case, except insofar as it may be authorized by the Secretary of War, is prohibited by the Act of March 3, 1899, c. 425, § 10, 30 Stat 1151, as involving a change in the condition of the Lakes and the Chicago River (admitted to be navigable) and an obstruction to their navigable capacity. P. 428.

        10. Revocable licenses granted by the Secretary of War under the above Act of 1899, concerning the appellant's canal and the quantity of water to be taken from Lake Michigan -- considered and held no justification for the excessive diversions here complained of by the government. P. 429.

        11. Refusal of the Secretary of War to license greater withdrawals of water from Lake Michigan by the appellant through its canal for the sanitation of Chicago did not infringe any rights of that city arising from its investment in the canal property, or of states bordering on the Mississippi based on their interest in increasing the artificial flow; nor were those states or the city entitled to be heard before the license was refused. P. 431.


        Appeal from a decree of the district court enjoining the appellant from diverting water from Lake Michigan in excess of 250,000 cubic feet per minute, the amount authorized by the Secretary of War.

Page 423

        HOLMES, J., lead opinion

        MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

       This is a bill in equity brought by the United States to enjoin the Sanitary District of Chicago, a corporation of Illinois, from diverting water from Lake Michigan in excess of 250,000 cubic feet per minute, the withdrawal of that amount having been authorized by the Secretary of War. It is alleged that the withdrawal of more, viz., from 400,000 to 600,000 cubic feet per minute, has lowered and will lower the level of the water of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Sault Ste Marie, St. Mary's River, St. Clair River, Detroit River, Niagara River, St.Lawrence River, and all the harbors, etc., connected therewith, all of which are alleged to be navigable waters of the United States, and will thus create an obstruction to the navigable capacity of said waters, and that it will alter and modify the condition and capacity of the above named and their ports, etc., connected with them. The prohibition of such alterations and obstructions in the Act [45 S.Ct. 178] of March 3,

Page 424

1899, c. 425, § 10, 30 Stat. 1121, 1151, is set out at length and relied upon, but the frame of the bill does not exclude a reliance upon more general principles if they were needed in order to maintain it.

        The withdrawal practised and threatened is through an artificial channel that takes the place of the Chicago River, formerly a little stream flowing into Lake Michigan, and of a part of its branches. The channel, instead of adding water to the Lake, has been given an opposite incline, takes its water from the Lake, flows into the Desplaines River, which empties into the Illinois River, which in its turn empties into the Mississippi. The channel is at least twenty-five feet deep and at least one hundred and sixty-two feet wide, and while its interest to the defendant is primarily as a means to dispose of the sewage of Chicago, Missouri v. Illinois, 200 U.S. 496, it has been an object of attention to the United States as opening water communication between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and the Gulf.

        The answer shows that the defendant is proceeding under a state act of May 29, 1889 (Laws 1889, p. 125), by which it was...

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