339 U.S. 725 (1950), 4, United States v. Gerlach Live Stock Co.

Docket Nº:No. 4
Citation:339 U.S. 725, 70 S.Ct. 955, 94 L.Ed. 1231
Party Name:United States v. Gerlach Live Stock Co.
Case Date:June 05, 1950
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 725

339 U.S. 725 (1950)

70 S.Ct. 955, 94 L.Ed. 1231

United States


Gerlach Live Stock Co.

No. 4

United States Supreme Court

June 5, 1950

Argued March 1, 1949

Reargued March 29-30, 1950



Respondents are owners of so-called "uncontrolled grass lands" along the San Joaquin River in California which depend for water upon seasonal inundations resulting from overflows of the River. The value of these lands will be impaired by the construction by the United States of the Friant Dam and its dependent irrigation system, as part of the Central Valley Project, a gigantic undertaking by the Federal Government to redistribute the principal fresh water resources of California. While the project will have some relatively insignificant effects on navigation, its principal economic effects pertain to values realized from storage and redistribution of water for power, irrigation, reclamation, flood control, and other similar purposes. Claiming under California law riparian rights to the benefits from the annual inundations of their lands, respondents sued in the Court of Claims for compensation. The Government contended that the damage was noncompensable, on the ground that the entire project was authorized by Congress, under the commerce power, as a measure for the control of navigation.

Held: judgments of the Court of Claims in favor of respondents are affirmed. Pp. 727-756.

1. Even if it be assumed that Friant Dam bears some relation to control of navigation, nevertheless Congress elected to treat it as a reclamation project, to recognize any state-created rights and to take them under its power of eminent domain, and the provisions of the Reclamation Act, 43 U.S.C. §§ 371 et seq., providing for reimbursement, are applicable to these claims. Pp. 731-742.

(a) In undertaking the Friant projects and implementing the work as carried forward by the Reclamation Bureau, Congress proceeded on the basis of full recognition of water rights having valid existence under state law. Pp. 734-736.

Page 726

(b) Notwithstanding its general declaration of purpose that the Central Valley Project as a whole is to improve navigation, Congress did not intend to invoke its navigation servitude as to each and every one of this group of coordinated projects, and has not attempted to take, or authorized the taking, without compensation, of rights valid under state law. Pp. 736-739.

(c) The administrative practice with reference to this project supports the view that it is a reclamation project involving respect for existing water rights and compensation to owners thereof. Pp.739-742.

2. Under California law, respondents had riparian rights to periodic inundations of their lands by seasonal overflows of the River; these rights are compensable under California law, and the awards of the Court of Claims correctly applied the law of California as made applicable to these claims by Congress. Pp. 742-755.

3. This Court declines to set aside the determination of the Court of Claims that the date from which interest is to be allowed is October 20, 1941, the date of the first substantial impoundment of water, even though it had not then prevented benefits from reaching the property. P. 755.

4. This Court accepts without review a finding by the Court of Claims construing reservations in deeds of certain of the claimants, a question governed by conveyancing and real property law peculiar to this one case, depending on local law, and not of general interest, and on which there is no manifest error in the finding of the Court of Claims. P. 755.

5. The Court of Claims adequately described the rights taken and for which it made an award. P. 756.

111 Ct.Cl. 1, 89, 76 F.Supp. 87, 99, affirmed.

The Court of Claims severally awarded compensation to respondents for the taking by the United States, through the construction of Friant Dam, of their riparian rights to annual inundations of their lands along the San Joaquin River in California. 111 Ct.Cl. 1, 89, 76 F.Supp. 87, 99. This Court granted certiorari. 335 U.S. 883. Affirmed, p. 756.

Page 727

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

[70 S.Ct. 957] MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are asked to relieve the United States from six awards by the Court of Claims as just compensation for deprivation of riparian rights along the San Joaquin River

Page 728

in California caused by construction of Friant Dam, and its dependent irrigation system, as part of the Central Valley Project.

This is a gigantic undertaking to redistribute principal fresh-water resources of California. Central Valley is a vast basin, stretching over 400 miles on its polar axis and a hundred in width, in the heart of California. Bounded by the Sierra Nevada on the east and by coastal ranges on the west, it consists actually of two separate river valleys which merge in a single pass to the sea at the Golden Gate. Its rich acres, counted in the millions, are deficient in rainfall, and must remain generally arid and unfruitful unless artificially watered.

Water resources there are, if they can be captured and distributed over the land. From the highland barricade at the north, the Sacramento River flows southerly, while, from the Yosemite region at the southeast, the San Joaquin River winds northeasterly until the two meet and consort in outlet to the sea through estuaries that connect with San Francisco Bay. These dominating rivers collect tribute from many mountain currents, carry their hoardings past parched plains and thriftlessly dissipate them in the Pacific tides. When it is sought to make these streams yield their wasting treasures to the lands they traverse, men are confronted with a paradox of nature, for the Sacramento, with almost twice the water, is accessible to the least land, whereas about three-fifths of the valley lies in the domain of the less affluent San Joaquin.

To harness these wasting waters, overcome this perversity of nature, and make water available where it would be of greatest service, the California proposed to reengineer its natural water distribution. This project was taken over by the United States in 1935, and has since been a federal enterprise. The plan, in broad outline, is to capture and store waters of both rivers and many of their tributaries in their highland basins, in some

Page 729

cases taking advantage of the resulting head for generation of electric energy. Shasta Dam in the north will produce power for use throughout much of the State, and will provide a great reservoir to equalize seasonal flows of the Sacramento. A more dramatic feature of the plan is the water storage and irrigation system at the other end of the valley. There, the waters of the San Joaquin will be arrested at Friant, where they would take leave of the mountains, and will be diverted north and south through a system of canals, and sold to irrigate more than a million acres of land, some as far as 160 miles away. A cost of refreshing this great expanse of semi-arid land is that, except for occasional spills, only a dry river bed will cross the plain below the dam. Here, however, surplus waters from the north are utilized, for, through a 150-mile canal, Sacramento water is to be pumped to the cultivated lands formerly dependent on the San Joaquin.

Both rivers afford navigation -- the Sacramento for a considerable distance inland, the San Joaquin practically only at tidewater levels. The plan will have navigation consequences, principally on the Sacramento, but the effects on navigation are economically insignificant as compared with the values realized from redistribution of water benefits.

Such a project inevitably unsettles many advantages long enjoyed in reliance upon the natural order, and it is with deprivation of such benefits that we are here concerned.

Claimants own land parcels riparian to the San Joaquin.1 These are called "uncontrolled grass lands," to distinguish them from either crop [70 S.Ct. 958] lands or "controlled grass lands," both of which have long been irrigated through controlled systems supplied from the stream.

Page 730

Neither of these latter will be injured by the diversion, for they are to be provided with the replacement water from the Sacramento.

Uncontrolled grass lands involved in the claims are parts of a large riparian area which benefits from the natural seasonal overflow of the stream. Each year, with predictable regularity, the stream swells and submerges and saturates these low-lying lands. They are moistened and enriched by these inundations, so that forage and pasturage thrive, as otherwise they cannot. The high stage of the river, while fluctuating in height and variable in arrival, is not a flood in the sense of an abnormal and sudden deluge. The river rises and falls in rhythm with the cycle of seasons, expansion being normal for its time as curtailment is for others, and both are repeated with considerable constancy over the years. It should be noted, however, that claimants' benefit comes only from the very crest of this seasonal stage, which crest must be elevated and borne to their lands on the base of a full river, none of which can be utilized for irrigation above and little of it below them. Their claim of right is, in other words, to enjoy natural, seasonal fluctuation unhindered, which presupposes a peak flow largely unutilized.

The project puts an end to all this. Except at rare intervals, there will be no spill over Friant Dam, the bed of the San Joaquin along claimants' lands will be parched, and their grass lands will be barren. Unlike the supply utilized for nearby crop and "controlled" lands, the vanishing San Joaquin inundation cannot be replaced with Sacramento water. Claimants have been severally awarded compensation for this taking of their annual inundations on the theory that, as part of the natural flow, its continuance is a right...

To continue reading