BONELLI CATTLE CO. V. ARIZONA, 414 U. S. 313 (1973)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona

No. 72-397

Argued October 15, 1973

Decided December 17, 1973

414 U.S. 313


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. 414 U. S. 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. 414 U. S. 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. 414 U. S. 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. 414 U. S. 325-332.

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

Page 414 U. S. 314

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. 414 U. S. 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. 414 U. S. 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. 414 U. S. 332. REHNQUIST, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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