State of Cal. ex rel. State Lands Com. v. Superior Court, S037729

Citation900 P.2d 648,44 Cal.Rptr.2d 399,11 Cal.4th 50
Decision Date31 August 1995
Docket NumberNo. S037729,S037729
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties, 900 P.2d 648, 95 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6950, 95 Daily Journal D.A.R. 11,839 STATE of California ex rel. STATE LANDS COMMISSION, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Sacramento County, Respondent; Richard K. LOVELACE et al., Real Parties in Interest.

Page 399

44 Cal.Rptr.2d 399
11 Cal.4th 50, 900 P.2d 648, 95 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6950,
95 Daily Journal D.A.R. 11,839
STATE of California ex rel. STATE LANDS COMMISSION, Petitioner,
The SUPERIOR COURT of Sacramento County, Respondent;
Richard K. LOVELACE et al., Real Parties in Interest.
No. S037729.
Supreme Court of California.
Aug. 31, 1995.

Page 401

[11 Cal.4th 55] [900 P.2d 650] John K. Van de Kamp and Daniel E. Lungren, Attys. Gen., Roderick E. Walston, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., Jan S. Stevens, Asst. Atty. Gen., Richard M. Frank, Dennis M. Eagan, Joseph Barbieri, Kenneth R. Williams and Michael L. Crow, Deputy Attys. Gen., for petitioner.

No appearance for respondent.

McDonough, Holland & Allen, Stuart Somach, Virginia A. Cahill and Sandra K. Dunn, Sacramento, for real parties in interest.

Washburn, Briscoe & McCarthy, Edgar B. Washburn, Sean E. McCarthy, David M. Ivester, Louis F. Claiborne and Lyn Jacobs, San Francisco, for real parties in interest and as amici curiae on behalf of real parties in interest.

Zumbrun, Best & Findley, Ronald A. Zumbrun, Robert K. Best, R. Prescott Jaunich and James S. Burling, Sacramento, as amici curiae on behalf of real parties in interest.

ARABIAN, Justice.

Beginning in 1848, and accelerating rapidly in 1849, gold lured fortune seekers to California. Hordes of prospectors panning or using other primitive methods quickly snatched up the wealth lying on the surface and in riverbeds. Soon, more advanced and environmentally intrusive techniques were utilized to reach the more inaccessible treasure hiding within the California hills. The era of hydraulic mining began. Miners washed the land away with water, extracting gold in the process.

Before being halted over 100 years ago, hydraulic mining caused enormous quantities of silt and other debris to be deposited into water systems, including the Sacramento River and its tributaries. This silt and debris then flowed downstream. Some came to rest along river banks far from the locale of the mining, changing forever the landscape of California. These events, [11 Cal.4th 56] and possibly human activities such as river dredging and the construction of wing dams and levees, contributed over many years to the imperceptible accumulation, or "accretion," of 12 acres of dry land that used to be riverbed in a spot in Sacramento called Chicory Bend. The Sacramento River there is navigable and, even that far inland, is affected by the tides, making its shores tidelands. The river and tidelands belong to the state, as did the 12 acres when they were riverbed. The adjacent land, at least that not including the 12 acres, belongs to private parties. The question we address is who owns the 12 acres now.

We trace the underlying factual history to the 19th century, but the relevant law dates back to the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who gave the world the Justinian Code, and the first known law of accretion. The general California rule is easy to state. If the accretion was natural, the private landowners own it; if it was artificial, the state owns it. But the specific application is far from easy. Is the accretion natural any time it is caused by the flow of the river, as the majority below found? Or is it artificial if caused by the hydraulic mining and by other human activities nearer the accreted land, as the state contends?

We conclude, as did the concurring justice of the Court of Appeal, that to adopt the test of the majority would effectively abandon California's longstanding "artificial accretion" rule. Instead, we reaffirm that rule. As between the state and private upland owners, land along tidelands and navigable rivers that accretes by artificial means, such as local dredging and construction of wing dams and levees, remains in state ownership, and does not go to the upland owner. We also conclude, however, that we should narrowly construe what is artificial under the

Page 402

[900 P.2d 651] California rule. Accretion is artificial if directly caused by human activities in the immediate vicinity of the accreted land. But accretion is not artificial merely because human activities far away and, in the case of hydraulic mining, long ago, contributed to it.

We thus disagree with much of the analysis of the majority below. However, we agree with its result, which is to deny a petition for writ of mandate. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal while rejecting the basis upon which it reached that judgment.


A. Proceedings in Superior Court

Real parties in interest, Richard K. Lovelace, et al. (hereafter private landowners or simply landowners), own property along the Sacramento [11 Cal.4th 57] River in Sacramento. In the underlying action in superior court to quiet title, the landowners and petitioner, the State of California ex rel. State Lands Commission (hereafter the state), both claim ownership of a 12-acre parcel between the river and the landowners' property on the west end of Seamas Avenue at a place commonly called Chicory Bend. The landowners claim title to the property to the high-tide line of the river under a deed received from their predecessor in interest.

The state claims ownership under the following theory. In 1850, when California became a state, the disputed property was under water and part of the bed of the Sacramento River. Because the river there is navigable and tidal, the state acquired ownership of the riverbed upon admission to the Union. Thereafter, the course of the river shifted westward as the result of "artificial accretive influences," creating the disputed acreage. Because the accretion was artificial, the state contends, it retains ownership of the property. In response to an interrogatory propounded by the private landowners, the state listed four artificial influences it claims caused the accretion: (1) "Debris from hydraulic mining activities in the American River and Feather River watersheds," (2) "Wing dams erected in the river channel at or near the location of the subject property," (3) "Levees constructed at or near the location of the subject property," and (4) "Dredging of the river channel in the vicinity of the subject property."

The landowners moved under Code of Civil Procedure section 437c as it then read (it has since been amended) for summary adjudication that "any gradual accumulations of land along the Sacramento River at Chicory Bend consisting, in part, of sediments washed into upstream tributaries in the Feather River and American River watersheds by hydraulic mining, and not caused by any artificial structures or activities at Chicory Bend, are natural accretions that belong to the riparian landowner." They expressly did not seek summary adjudication regarding the wing dams, levees, and dredging. Although disputing that these latter activities contributed to the accretion, they recognized that this presented a factual question not susceptible of summary adjudication, and conceded "that any deposits of land caused by these three activities, in the vicinity of Chicory Bend, would be artificial accretions under California law."

The parties agree that the Feather River and the American River empty into the Sacramento River north of Chicory Bend. The landowners' statement of undisputed material facts alleged: "During an approximately 25-year period prior to 1884, hydraulic mining operations in the American River and Feather River watersheds washed great quantities of earth into natural [11 Cal.4th 58] streams and watercourses tributary to the American River and Feather River. Some of the mud and silt, in combination with materials that entered the streams as the product of natural erosion, were transported as suspended sediments and eventually deposited in the bed of the Sacramento River."

The state disputed this statement to the extent that it "grossly understates the effect of hydraulic mining debris on the Sacramento River," and alleged: "The hydraulic mining occurred over a 32-year period between 1852 and 1884. Its effects lasted much longer. It had the effect of quintupling for about 100 years the average annual amounts of sediment that would have passed from the Sacramento Basin into the bay under natural

Page 403

[900 P.2d 652] conditions. Prior to hydraulic mining, the Sacramento River in the vicinity of Chicory Bend was clear and deep flowing, without islands or bars. The river supported navigation by large steamers and seagoing craft. The hydraulic mining debris had enormous [effects] on the Sacramento River in the vicinity of Chicory Bend. Shoals and sand bars emerged, blocking or hindering navigation. At Chicory Bend, the bed of the river rose 12 to 15 feet between 1872 and 1882. Levees, wing dams and dredging were direct responses to the problems of flooding and hindrance of navigation caused by hydraulic mining debris."

The superior court granted the motion for summary adjudication, ruling: "Civil Code § 1014 provides that accretions from natural causes belong to the adjacent landowner. While there can be no doubt that enormous quantities of silt found their way into the Sacramento River system after having been dislodged by hydraulic mining, the materials were transported to Chicory Bend by natural causes, the flow of the River. In many ways, very little remains natural in the strictest sense as to most California rivers. Dams regulate the flow and alter the extent to which banks are eroded, for example. But to consider the entire system an artificial one would be inappropriate. Given the great passage of time since mining dislodged these materials and the distance from the source of the materials, and the time the accretions have existed, it would be unreasonable to interpret § 1014 to require tracing these accretions to their sources. This would place an inappropriate burden on the parties and the courts."

B. Appellate Proceedings

The state filed the instant original writ...

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