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U.S. Supreme Court

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

United States v. Gerlach Live Stock Co.

No. 4

Argued March 1, 1949

Reargued March 29-30, 1950

Decided June 5, 1950*

339 U.S. 725


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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 734-736.

Page 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 755.

5. The Court of Claims adequately described the rights taken and for which it made an award. P. 339 U. S. 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. 339 U. S. 756.

Page 339 U. S. 727

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