United States v. Utah
283 U.S. 64 (1931)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64 (1931)

United States v. Utah

No. 14, original

Argued February 25, 26, 1931

Decided April 13, 1931

283 U.S. 64

Syllabus

1. The United States sued the Utah to quiet title to land forming the beds of certain sections of the Colorado River and tributaries thereof within the state. Utah claimed title upon the ground that the streams at the places in question are navigable waters of the state.

Held:

(1) In accordance with the constitutional principle of the equality of states, the title to the beds of rivers in Utah passed to that state when it was admitted to the Union, January 4, 1896, if the rivers were then navigable, and, if they were not then navigable, it remained in the United States. P. 283 U. S. 75.

(2) The question of navigability is a federal question. Id.

(3) This is so although it is undisputed that the portions of the rivers under consideration are not navigable waters of the United States -- that is, they are not navigable in interstate or foreign commerce, and the question is whether they are navigable waters of the State of Utah. Id.

(4) In view of the physical characteristics of the rivers in question, findings and conclusions as to navigability are properly confined to the particular sections to which the controversy relates. P. 283 U. S. 77.

(5) The crucial question -- a question of fact -- is whether these stretches of river, in their ordinary condition and at the time of the admission of the state, were susceptible of use as highways of commerce. P. 283 U. S. 82.

(6) To this question, evidence of actual navigation, after as well as before the admission of the state, is relevant. Id.

(7) But, where the actual navigation of a stream has been infrequent and of limited nature, and this is explained by conditions

Page 283 U. S. 65

of exploration and settlement, its navigable capacity may be shown by its physical characteristics and by experimentation, as well as by the uses to which it has been put. P. 283 U. S. 82.

(8) The state is not to be denied title to the beds of such of its rivers as were navigable in fact at the time of its admission, either because the location of the rivers and the circumstances of the exploration and settlement of the country through which they flowed had made recourse to navigation a late adventure or because commercial utilization on a large scale awaits future demands. P. 283 U. S. 83.

(9) The evidence sustains the master's conclusion that certain sections of the Grand, Green and Colorado Rivers, despite impediments such as sandbars, floods, driftwood, etc., are navigable, and his conclusion that another section of the Colorado River is nonnavigable is likewise sustained, except as to a small part of that section which is shown to be navigable. Pp. 283 U. S. 84, 283 U. S. 89.

2. The inclusion of part of the Colorado River in Utah within the boundaries of an Indian reservation by an Executive Order which was made, and pro tanto revoked before the admission of the state is not proof that the river there was nonnavigable. P. 283 U. S. 88.

3. Where a decree in a suit to quiet title brought by the United States against a state adjudges that certain stretches of river are navigable and that their beds belong to the state, and that other stretches are nonnavigable and that their beds belong to the United States, it is proper, though not necessary, to insert a proviso that the United States shall in no wise be prevented from taking any such action in relation to said rivers or any of them as may be necessary to protect and preserve the navigability of any navigable waters of the United States. P. 283 U. S. 90.

This was an original suit by the United States to quiet title to land constituting the beds of described portions of the Colorado River and its tributaries, the San Juan, Green, and Grand Rivers, where they flow in Utah. The hearing was upon exceptions to the findings of the Special Master with respect to the Green, Grand, and Colorado. His finding that the San Juan is nonnavigable, as claimed by the government, was not challenged here by the state. Another finding of nonnavigability, covering a stretch of

Page 283 U. S. 66

the Colorado below the union of the Grand and Green, was also acquiesced in by the state save for a length of 4.35 miles immediately below that confluence. (The Grand River has been redesignated as the Colorado by Congress.)

Page 283 U. S. 71

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