414 U.S. 313 (1973), 72-397, Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona

Docket Nº:No. 72-397
Citation:414 U.S. 313, 94 S.Ct. 517, 38 L.Ed.2d 526
Party Name:Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona
Case Date:December 17, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

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414 U.S. 313 (1973)

94 S.Ct. 517, 38 L.Ed.2d 526

Bonelli Cattle Co.



No. 72-397

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 17, 1973

Argued October 15, 1973



Certain land abutting the east bank of the Colorado River was conveyed in 1910 by federal patent to a railroad company. Upon admission to the Union in 1912, Arizona succeeded the Federal Government to title to the bed of the Colorado River. The river's gradual eastward movement submerged the subject land by erosion so that title was mechanically transferred to the State as part of the riverbed. In 1955, petitioner cattle company acquired title to the original railroad grant, most of which by that time was covered by water. In 1959, the subject land was abandoned by the Colorado as a result of a federal rechanneling project. Petitioner cattle company filed this action to quiet title and prevailed in the lower courts, but the Arizona Supreme Court reversed, holding that, under the equal-footing doctrine and the Submerged Lands Act, Arizona held title to the beds of all navigable waters within its borders, and thus to the subject land as a result of the river's gradual eastward movement.


1. Ownership of the subject land is governed by federal law. The issue here is not what rights the State has accorded private owners in lands that the State holds as sovereign, but how far the State's sovereign right extends under the equal-footing doctrine and the federal Submerged Lands Act, i.e., whether the State retains title to lands formerly beneath the Colorado or whether title thereto is defeasible by withdrawal of those waters. Pp. 317-321.

2. The equal-footing doctrine does not support the State's claim, since, when the water receded from the disputed land, there was no longer a public purpose to be served by the State, as sovereign, holding title thereto. Pp. 321-324.

3. Nor does the Submerged Lands Act, which did not abrogate the federal law of accretion, support the State's claim, since that Act does not extend to the States any interest in the beds of navigable rivers beyond those afforded by the equal-footing doctrine. Pp. 324-325.

4. Title to the subject land, under the applicable federal common law, is vested in petitioner as riparian landowner, and not in the State as owner of the riverbed. Pp. 325-332.

(a) Analysis of the interests of the State and petitioner, in

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light of the rationales for the federal common law doctrines of accretion and avulsion, compels the conclusion that, as between the State, as owner of the riverbed, and petitioner, as riparian owner, the surfacing of the subject land should be treated as an accretion; hence, title to the disputed land should be vested in petitioner. Pp. 325-330.

(b) The doctrine of avulsion (whereby an avulsive change caused by a stream suddenly and perceptively abandoning its old channel does not affect title and the boundary established by the former river stream remains at that line, even if the result is to cut off a landowner's riparian rights) does not apply here, because of the limited interests of the State in the subject property. Pp. 328-329.

107 Ariz. 465, 489 P.2d 699, and 108 Ariz. 258, 495 P.2d 1312, reversed and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., wrote the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 332. REHNQUIST, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, announced by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN.

The question for decision is whether title to land abandoned by the stream of the Colorado River as a

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result of a federal rechanneling project vests in the State of Arizona, as owner of the beds under navigable streams within its borders, or in petitioner cattle company, as the owner of land riparian to the river at the time of the rechanneling.

The circumstances that give rise to this case are as follows. In 1910, the subject land was conveyed by federal patent, as part of a larger parcel, to the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Co. A survey conducted in 1905 and 1906, and approved by the Surveyor General of the United States in 1906, indicates that, as [94 S.Ct. 521] of the date of the patent, the Santa Fe parcel abutted the east bank of the Colorado River.1 Upon admission to the Union in 1912, Arizona succeeded the Federal Government to title to the bed of the Colorado River. The exact location of the river in 1912 in relation to the subject property is unclear from the record, but it is generally agreed that, between 1903 and 1959 (when it was rechanneled), the river moved gradually eastward, eroding its east bank and depositing alluvion on its west bank, resulting in the submergence by erosion of the subject land. As the river crept eastward, the boundary between

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upland owners and the state-owned riverbed moved mechanically with it, transferring title to the lands which became part of the riverbed to the State. The operation of Hoover Dam, begun in 1938, reduced the flow of water in the Colorado River and substantially decreased its annual flood stage high-water mark. Nonetheless, by 1955, when the Bonelli Cattle Co. acquired title to the subject portion of the original Santa Fe grant, all but 60 acres in the southeast corner of its parcel was covered by water. In 1959, a Federal Bureau of Reclamation Project deepened and rechanneled the Colorado River in the area of the subject land, thereby confining the stream of the river to a substantially reduced portion of the Bonelli property.2

In 1962, the Bonelli Cattle Co. filed the instant action to quiet title to the land from which the river had withdrawn as a result of the federal rechanneling project. The state trial court granted judgment for Bonelli and against the State of Arizona. The Arizona Court of Appeals, the State's intermediate appellate court, affirmed, upholding Bonelli's contention that, if the changes in the river were accretive, the surfaced land belonged to Bonelli, as a riparian owner, and if the change were avulsive, the land nonetheless belonged to Bonelli under the doctrine of reemergence.3

The Arizona Supreme Court reversed,4 holding that, under the equal-footing doctrine and the Submerged Lands Act, Arizona holds title to the beds of all navigable

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waters within its borders, and thus to the subject land, as a result of the gradual eastward movement of the river. The Arizona Supreme Court found that, because the federal rechannelization project was an "engineering relocation of the waters of the river by artificial means," it was, under state law, an avulsive change, which did not divest the State of its title to the exposed land which had formerly been part of the riverbed. The court denied a rehearing and, in a supplemental opinion, clarified the extent of the dry land owned by the State.5 It held that the high-water mark of the river, to [94 S.Ct. 522] which the State's ownership extends, was fixed by the natural state of the river as it existed in 1938, before the operation of Hoover Dam.6 We granted certiorari, 410 U.S. 908 (1973). We hold that the ownership of the subject land is governed by federal law, and that the land surfaced by the narrowing of the river channel belongs not to the State, as owner of the riverbed, but to Bonelli, as riparian owner. We need not, therefore, reach the question of whether the Arizona Supreme Court properly determined the average high-water mark of the river.


The first issue we must decide is whether state or federal law governs this controversy. The State of Arizona claims title to the subject land by virtue of the equal-footing doctrine7 and the Submerged Lands Act,8 the basic principles of which are as follows. When the

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Original Colonies ratified the Constitution, they succeeded to the Crown's title and interest in the beds of navigable waters within their respective borders. As new States were forged out of the federal territories after the formation of the Union, they were "admitted [with] the same rights, sovereignty and jurisdiction . . . as the original States possess within their respective borders." Mumford v. Wardwell, 6 Wall. 423, 436 (1867). Accordingly, title to lands beneath navigable waters passed from the Federal Government to the new States, upon their admission to the Union, under the equal-footing doctrine. See, e.g., Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212 (1845); Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1 (1894); Weber v. Board of Harbor Comm'rs, 18 Wall. 57, 65-66 (1873).

In order for the States to guarantee full public enjoyment of their navigable watercourses,9 it has been held that their title to the bed of a navigable river mechanically follows the river's gradual changes in course. See Oklahoma v. Texas, 268 U.S. 252 (1925). Thus, where portions of a riparian owner's land are encroached upon by a navigable stream, under federal law, the State succeeds to title in the bed of the river to its new highwater mark.

The Submerged Lands Act of 1953 did not disturb these doctrines or their inherent limitations. The Act merely confirmed the States' preexisting rights in the beds of the navigable waterways within their boundaries by, in effect, quitclaiming all federal claims thereto. And, consonant with the above-described common law doctrine concerning title to the bed of a river that has shifted course, the Submerged Lands Act quitclaims all federal rights to title to lands beneath the navigable streams, as "hereafter modified by accretion, erosion, and reliction." 43 U.S.C. § 1301(a)(1).

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The State of Arizona asserts title to the subject land on the basis of the following application of these principles. When Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, it assumed title to the land beneath the stream of the...

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