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U.S. Supreme Court

San Joaquin & Kings River Co. v. Stanislaus County, 233 U.S. 454 (1914)

San Joaquin & Kings River Canal &

Irrigation Company v. Stanislaus County

No. 303

Argued March 18, 1914

Decided April 27, 1914

233 U.S. 454




As the franchise involved in this case provides that the rates for supplying water may be fixed by a public body, but so that the returns shall not be less than a specified percent on the value of all the property actually used and useful to the appropriation and furnishing of the water, the value of the water rights owned by the company must be taken into account in establishing such rates.

A party may wait until after a law is passed or a regulation is made which affects his interests and then stand upon his constitutional

Page 233 U. S. 455

rights, and so held that a public utility corporation may attack a rate as confiscatory after it has been made, although it offered no evidence as to the value of its property and of the service rendered before the governing body establishing the rate. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, 211 U. S. 210.

The declaration in the California Constitution of 1879 that water appropriated for sale is appropriated for a public use is not to be construed as meaning that the water belongs to the public at large, but as meaning that those within reach may obtain it at a reasonable price.

191 F.8d 5 reversed.

The facts, which involve the validity under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of orders establishing water rates of an irrigation company in California, are stated in the opinion.

Page 233 U. S. 458

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a bill to restrain the enforcement of orders passed by the boards of supervisors of the three defendant counties, Stanislaus, Fresno, and Merced, establishing water rates to be charged by the plaintiff, the appellant; the ground of the bill being that the orders deprive the plaintiff of its property without due process of law. By a statute of March 12, 1885, the boards are authorized to fix these rates for their several counties, but so that the returns to the parties furnishing the water shall be not less than six percent upon the value of the "canals, ditches, flumes, chutes, and all other property actually used and useful to the appropriation and furnishing of such water." The rates, when fixed, are binding for one year and until established anew or abrogated. The bill concerns rates fixed in 1907, and the question before the Court has been narrowed to a single issue. If the plaintiff is entitled to six percent upon its tangible property alone, it is agreed that the orders must stand. But if the plaintiff has water rights that are to be taken into account, the rates fixed will fall short of giving it what it is entitled to and must be set aside. The circuit court dismissed the bill, 191 F.8d 5, and on this appeal figures are immaterial, the only question being whether the principle adopted is right.

Page 233 U. S. 459

It was suggested, to be sure at the argument, that it does not appear that the plaintiff offered any evidence as to water rights at the hearing before the supervisors, and therefore that it ought not to be allowed to complain now that nothing was allowed for them. But this evidently is an afterthought. In general, a party may wait until a law is passed or regulation is made, and then insist upon his constitutional rights. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U. S. 210, 211 U. S. 227-229. This we understand to be the view of the California courts as to these very boards. Spring Valley Water Works v. San Francisco, 82 Cal. 286, 315; San Diego Water Co. v. San Diego, 118 Cal. 558, 564. Moreover, as the defendants contend that the plaintiff is entitled to no compensation for water rights, to offer evidence would have been an idle form.

It is not disputed that the plaintiff has a right as against riparian proprietors to withdraw the water that it distributes through its canals. Whether the right was paid for, as the plaintiff says, or not, it has been confirmed by prescription and is now beyond attack. It is not disputed, either, that, if the plaintiff were the owner of riparian lands to which its water was distributed, it would have a property in the water that could not be taken without compensation. But it is said that, as the plaintiff appropriates this water to distribution and sale, it thereby dedicates it to public use under California law, and so loses its private right in the same. It appears to us that, when the cases cited for this proposition are pressed to the conclusion reached in the present case, they are misapplied. No doubt it is true that such an appropriation and use of the water entitles those within reach of it to demand the use of a reasonable share on payment. It well may be true that, if the waters were taken for a superior use by eminent domain, those whose lands were irrigated would be compensated for the loss. But even if the rate paid is not to be determined as upon a purchase of water from the plaintiff,

Page 233 U. S. 460

still, at the lowest, the plaintiff has the sole right to furnish this water, the owner of the irrigated lands cannot get it except through the plaintiff's help, and it would be unjust not to take that fact into account in fixing the rates. We are not called upon to decide what the rate shall be, or even the principle by which it shall be measured. But it is proper to add a few words.

The declaration in the Constitution of 1879 that water appropriated for sale is appropriated to a public use must be taken according to its subject matter. The use is not by the public at large, like that of the ocean for sailing, but by certain individuals for their private benefit respectively. Thayer v. California Development Co., 164 Cal. 117, 128; Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley, 164 U. S. 112, 164 U. S. 161. The declaration therefore does not necessarily mean more than that the few within reach of the supply may demand it for a reasonable price. The roadbed of a railroad is devoted to a public use in a stricter sense, yet the title of the railroad remains, and the use, though it may be demanded, must be paid for. In this case, it is said that a part of the water was appropriated before the constitution went into effect, and that a suit now is pending to condemn more as against a riparian proprietor, for which, of course, the plaintiff must pay. It seems unreasonable to suppose that the constitution meant that if a party, instead of using the water on his own land, as he may, sees fit to distribute it to others, he loses the rights that he has bought or lawfully acquired. Recurring to the fact that in every instance only a few specified individuals get the right to a supply, and that it clearly appears from the latest statement of the Supreme Court of California, Palmer v. Railroad Commission, January 20, 1914, 47 Cal. 201, that the water when appropriated is private property, it is unreasonable to suppose that the constitutional declaration meant to compel a gift from the former owner to the users, and that, in

Page 233 U. S. 461

dealing with water "appropriated for sale," it meant that there should be nothing to sell. See San Diego Water Co. v. San Diego, 118 Cal. 556, 567; Fresno Canal & Irrigation Co. v. Park, 129 Cal. 437, 443 et seq.; Stanislaus Water Co. v. Bachman, 152 Cal. 716; Leavitt v. Lassen Irrigation Co., 157 Cal. 82.

Decree reversed.

MR. JUSTICE PITNEY did not sit in this case.

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