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decided: June 5, 1950.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton

Author: Jackson

[ 339 U.S. Page 727]

 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

[ 339 U.S. 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 the 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 State of California proposed to re-engineer 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

[ 339 U.S. 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 semiarid 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.*fn1 These are called "uncontrolled grass lands," to distinguish them from either crop lands or "controlled grass lands," both of which have long been irrigated through controlled systems supplied from the stream.

[ 339 U.S. 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 can not. 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 annexed to their riparian property. 111 Ct. Cl. 1, 89, 76 F.Supp. 87, 99. The principal issues are common to the six cases in which we granted certiorari. 335 U.S. 883.

[ 339 U.S. Page 731]


The Solicitor General contends that this overall project, and each part of it, has been authorized by Congress, under the commerce power, as a measure for control of navigation. Claimants on the other hand urge that although improvement of navigation was one objective of the Central Valley undertaking as a whole, nevertheless construction of the Friant Dam and the consequent taking of San Joaquin water rights had no purpose or effect except for irrigation and reclamation. This, it is claimed, was not only the actual, but the avowed purpose of Congress. On these conflicting assumptions the parties predicate contrary conclusions as to the right to compensation.

In the Rivers and Harbors Act of August 26, 1937, § 2, 50 Stat. 844, 850, and again in the Rivers and Harbors Act of October 17, 1940, 54 Stat. 1198, 1199-1200, Congress said that "the entire Central Valley project . . . is . . . declared to be for the purposes of improving navigation, regulating the flow of the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River, controlling floods, providing for storage and for the delivery of the stored waters thereof . . . ." The 1937 Act also provided that "the said dam and reservoirs shall be used, first, for river regulation, improvement of navigation, and flood control . . . ."

But it also is true, as pointed out by claimants, that in these Acts Congress expressly "reauthorized"*fn2 a project

[ 339 U.S. Page 732]

     already initiated by President Roosevelt, who, on September 10, 1935, made allotment of funds for construction of Friant Dam and canals under the Federal Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, 49 Stat. 115, § 4, and provided that they "shall be reimbursable in accordance with the reclamation laws."*fn3 A finding of feasibility, as required by law,*fn4 was made by the Secretary of the Interior on November 26, 1935, making no reference to navigation, and his recommendation of "the Central Valley development as a Federal reclamation project" was approved by the President on December 2, 1935.

When it "reauthorized" the Central Valley undertaking, Congress in the same Act provided that "the provisions

[ 339 U.S. Page 733]

     of the reclamation law,*fn5 as amended, shall govern the repayment of expenditures and the construction, operation, and maintenance of the dams, canals, power plants, pumping plants, transmission lines, and incidental works deemed necessary to said entire project, and the Secretary of the Interior may enter into repayment contracts, and other necessary contracts, with State agencies, authorities, associations, persons, and corporations, either public or private, including all agencies with which contracts are authorized under the reclamation law, and may acquire by proceedings in eminent domain, or otherwise, all lands, rights-of-way, water rights, and other property necessary for said purposes: . . . ."

The Central Valley basin development envisions, in one sense, an integrated undertaking, but also an aggregate of many subsidiary projects, each of which is of first magnitude. It consists of thirty-eight major dams and reservoirs bordering the valley floor and scores of smaller ones in headwaters. It contemplates twenty-eight hydropower generating stations. It includes hundreds of miles of main canals, thousands of miles of laterals and drains, electric transmission and feeder lines and substations, and a vast network of structures for the control and use of water on two million acres of land already irrigated, three million acres of land to be newly irrigated, 360,000 acres in the delta needing protection from intrusions of salt water, and for municipal and miscellaneous purposes including cities, towns, duck clubs and game refuges. These projects are not only widely separated geographically, many of them physically independent in operation, but they are authorized in separate acts from year to year and are to be constructed at different times over a considerable span of years. A formula has been approved by the President by which multiple purpose dams are the

[ 339 U.S. Page 734]

     responsibility of the Bureau of Reclamation, and dams and other works only for flood control are exclusively the responsibility of the Army Engineers.*fn6 The entire Friant and San Joaquin projects at all times have been administered by the Bureau of Reclamation.

We cannot disagree with claimants' contention that in undertaking these 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. By its command that the provisions of the reclamation law should govern the construction, operation, and maintenance of the several construction projects, Congress directed the Secretary of the Interior to proceed in conformity with state laws, giving full recognition to every right vested under those laws.*fn7 Cf. Nebraska v. Wyoming, 295 U.S. 40, 43; Power Co. v. Cement Co., 295 U.S. 142, 164; Nebraska v. Wyoming, 325 U.S. 589, 614; Mason Co. v. Tax Comm'n, 302 U.S. 186. In this respect, Congress' action parallels that in Ford & Son v. Little Falls Fibre Co., 280 U.S. 369. The original plan called

[ 339 U.S. Page 735]

     for purchase of water rights and included an estimate of their cost.*fn8 We are advised by the Government that at least throughout administration of California reclamation projects it has been the consistent practice of the Bureau of Reclamation to respect such property rights. Such has specifically been the Bureau's practice in connection with the Friant project, and this has been reported to Congress,*fn9 which has responded some nine times in the past

[ 339 U.S. Page 736]

     twelve years to requests for appropriations to meet such expenses. We think this amounts, not to authorizations and declarations creating causes of action against the United States, but to awareness and approval of administrative construction. We think it clear that throughout the conception, enactment and subsequent administration of the plan, Congress has recognized the property status of water rights vested under California law.

It is not to be doubted that the totality of a plan so comprehensive has some legitimate relation to control of inland navigation or that particular components may be described without pretense as navigation and flood control projects. This made it appropriate that Congress should justify making this undertaking a national burden by general reference to its power over commerce and navigation.

The Government contends that the overall declaration of purpose is applicable to Friant Dam and related irrigation facilities as an integral part of "what Congress quite properly treated as a unit." Adverting to United States v. Willow River Co., 324 U.S. 499; United States v. Commodore Park, 324 U.S. 386; United States v. Appalachian Power Co., 311 U.S. 377; United States v. Chandler-Dunbar Co., 229 U.S. 53, the Government relies on the rule that it does not have to compensate for destruction of riparian interests over which at the point of conflict it has a superior navigation easement the exercise of which occasions the damage. And irrespective of divisibility of the entire Central Valley undertaking, the Government contends that Friant Dam involves a measure of flood control, an end which is sensibly related to control of navigation. Oklahoma v. Atkinson Co., 313 U.S. 508.

Claimants, on the other hand, urge that at least the Friant Dam project was wholly unrelated to navigation ends and could not be controlled by the general Congressional declaration of purpose. They point out that, although

[ 339 U.S. Page 737]

     definitions of navigation have been expanded, United States v. Appalachian Power Co., supra, in every instance in which this Court has denied compensation for deprivation of riparian rights it has specifically noted that the federal undertaking bore some positive relation to control of navigation. United States v. Willow River Co., supra, 510; United States v. Commodore Park, supra, 391; United States v. Appalachian Power Co., supra, 423; United States v. Chandler-Dunbar Co., supra, 62; and cases cited. And, referring to International Paper Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 399; United States v. River Rouge Co., 269 U.S. 411, and cases cited, they observe that this Court has never permitted the Government to pervert its navigation servitude into a right to destroy riparian interests without reimbursement where no navigation purpose existed.

Since we do not agree that Congress intended to invoke its navigation servitude as to each and every one of this group of coordinated projects, we do not reach the constitutional or other issues thus posed. Accordingly, we need not decide whether a general declaration of purpose is controlling where interference with navigation is neither the means, South Carolina v. Georgia, 93 U.S. 4, nor the consequence, United States v. Commodore Park, supra, of its advancement elsewhere. Similarly, we need not ponder whether, by virtue of a highly fictional navigation purpose, the Government could destroy the flow of a navigable stream and carry away its waters for sale to private interests without compensation to those deprived of them. We have never held that or anything like it, and we need not here pass on any question of constitutional power; for we do not find that Congress has attempted to take or authorized the taking, without compensation, of any rights valid under state law.

On the contrary, Congress' general direction of purpose we think was intended to help ...

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