283 U.S. 64 (1931), 14, United States v. Utah

Docket Nº:No. 14, original
Citation:283 U.S. 64, 51 S.Ct. 438, 75 L.Ed. 844
Party Name:United States v. Utah
Case Date:April 13, 1931
Court:United States Supreme Court

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283 U.S. 64 (1931)

51 S.Ct. 438, 75 L.Ed. 844

United States



No. 14, original

United States Supreme Court

April 13, 1931

Argued February 25, 26, 1931


1. The United States sued the Utah to quiet title to land forming the beds of certain sections of the Colorado River and tributaries thereof within the state. Utah claimed title upon the ground that the streams at the places in question are navigable waters of the state.


(1) In accordance with the constitutional principle of the equality of states, the title to the beds of rivers in Utah passed to that state when it was admitted to the Union, January 4, 1896, if the rivers were then navigable, and, if they were not then navigable, it remained in the United States. P. 75.

(2) The question of navigability is a federal question. Id.

(3) This is so although it is undisputed that the portions of the rivers under consideration are not navigable waters of the United States -- that is, they are not navigable in interstate or foreign commerce, and the question is whether they are navigable waters of the State of Utah. Id.

(4) In view of the physical characteristics of the rivers in question, findings and conclusions as to navigability are properly confined to the particular sections to which the controversy relates. P. 77.

(5) The crucial question -- a question of fact -- is whether these stretches of river, in their ordinary condition and at the time of the admission of the state, were susceptible of use as highways of commerce. P. 82.

(6) To this question, evidence of actual navigation, after as well as before the admission of the state, is relevant. Id.

(7) But, where the actual navigation of a stream has been infrequent and of limited nature, and this is explained by conditions

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of exploration and settlement, its navigable capacity may be shown by its physical characteristics and by experimentation, as well as by the uses to which it has been put. P. 82.

(8) The state is not to be denied title to the beds of such of its rivers as were navigable in fact at the time of its admission, either because the location of the rivers and the circumstances of the exploration and settlement of the country through which they flowed had made recourse to navigation a late adventure or because commercial utilization on a large scale awaits future demands. P. 83.

(9) The evidence sustains the master's conclusion that certain sections of the Grand, Green and Colorado Rivers, despite impediments such as sandbars, floods, driftwood, etc., are navigable, and his conclusion that another section of the Colorado River is nonnavigable is likewise sustained, except as to a small part of that section which is shown to be navigable. Pp. 84, 89.

2. The inclusion of part of the Colorado River in Utah within the boundaries of an Indian reservation by an Executive Order which was made, and pro tanto revoked before the admission of the state is not proof that the river there was nonnavigable. P. 88.

3. Where a decree in a suit to quiet title brought by the United States against a state adjudges that certain stretches of river are navigable and that their beds belong to the state, and that other stretches are nonnavigable and that their beds belong to the United States, it is proper, though not necessary, to insert a proviso that the United States shall in no wise be prevented from taking any such action in relation to said rivers or any of them as may be necessary to protect and preserve the navigability of any navigable waters of the United States. P. 90.

This was an original suit by the United States to quiet title to land constituting the beds of described portions of the Colorado River and its tributaries, the San Juan, Green, and Grand Rivers, where they flow in Utah. The hearing was upon exceptions to the findings of the Special Master with respect to the Green, Grand, and Colorado. His finding that the San Juan is nonnavigable, as claimed by the government, was not challenged here by the state. Another finding of nonnavigability, covering a stretch of

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the Colorado below the union of the Grand and Green, was also acquiesced in by the state save for a length of 4.35 miles immediately below that confluence. (The Grand River has been redesignated as the Colorado by Congress.)

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HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States brought this suit to quiet its title to certain portions of the beds of the Green, Colorado, and San Juan rivers within the State of Utah as follows:

The Green River, from a point where the river crosses the line between townships 23 and 24 south, range 17 east, Salt Lake Base and Meridian (approximately he mouth of the San Rafael River) down to the confluence of the Green River with the Colorado River, 95 miles.

The Colorado River from the mouth of Castle Creek (about 14 miles above the Town of Moab) to the boundary line between Utah and Arizona, 296 miles (including the portion of the Colorado River above the mouth of the Green River which had formerly been known as the Grand River).

The San Juan river from the mouth of Chinle Creek (5 miles below the town of Bluff) to its confluence with the Colorado River, 133 miles.

The complaint alleges that, by the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty of February 2, 1848,1 the United States acquired

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from the Republic of Mexico the title to all the lands riparian to these rivers, together with the riverbeds, within the State of Utah, and that the United States remains the owner of these lands, with certain stated exceptions of lands granted by it; that the Green, Colorado, and San Juan Rivers, throughout their entire length within the State of Utah, are not, and never have been, navigable, and that they have not been used, nor are they susceptible of being used, in their natural and ordinary condition as permanent highways or channels for useful commerce within the State of Utah or between states or with any foreign nation; that the United States, as proprietor, has executed and delivered numerous prospecting permits covering portions of the riverbeds in question, giving to the permittees the exclusive right of prospecting for petroleum, oil, and gas minerals, and that the permittees have entered upon development work; that the State of Utah claims title adverse to the United States in these riverbeds, asserting that the rivers always have been and are navigable, and that title to the riverbeds vested in the state when it was admitted to the Union, and that Utah, without the consent or authority of the United States, has executed and delivered numerous oil and gas leases covering portions of these riverbeds and purporting to give exclusive rights and privileges. The United States asks that the claim of Utah to any right, title, or interest in the riverbeds in question be adjudged to be null and void, that it be determined that the United States has full and exclusive title thereto, and that injunction issue accordingly.

By its answer, Utah denies ownership by the United States of the riverbeds described in the complaint, and sets up title in the state, alleging the navigability of the rivers.

The Court referred the case to Charles Warren as special master to take the evidence and to report it with his findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations for decree. Hearings have been had before the master, voluminous evidence has been received, and the master

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has filed his report. The report gives a comprehensive statement of the facts adduced with respect to the topography of the rivers, their history, [51 S.Ct. 440] impediments to navigation, and the use, and susceptibility to use, of the rivers as highways of commerce.

A distinction in descriptive terms should be noted. When Utah became a state, the Grand River, rising in Colorado and flowing through that state and within Utah to the junction with the Green River, was designated on all government maps and reports as separate from the Colorado River, and the name Colorado River was applied only to the river formed by the confluence of the Green River and the Grand River. The Congress, by the Act of July 25, 1921,2 provided that the river theretofore known as the Grand River, from its source in Colorado to the point where it joined the Green River in Utah and formed the Colorado River, should thereafter be designated as the Colorado River. Considering that this Act had no retroactive effect, and as it expressly provided that the change in name should not affect the rights of Colorado and Utah, the master has followed in his report the earlier designations, and thus has dealt with four rivers, the beds of which are in question, instead of three -- that is, the Green River, the Grand River, the Colorado River (below the junction of the Green and Grand), and the San Juan River.

The master has made his findings as to navigability as of January 4, 1896, the date of the admission of Utah to the Union.3 The master finds that, at that time, the following streams in question were navigable waters of Utah: the Green River, from a point where the river crossed the township line between townships 23 and 24 south, range 17 east, Salt Lake Base and Meridian down to its confluence with the Grand River (about 95 miles); the Grand River, from the mouth of Castle Creek down to the confluence of the Grand River with the Green

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River (about 79 miles), and the Colorado River, from Mile 176 above Lees Ferry south to the Utah-Arizona boundary (about 150 miles), and that the following streams were nonnavigable waters of Utah: the Colorado River, south from the confluence of the Green and the Grand Rivers down to the...

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