The Curt Brown Chronicles: Riparian Boundaries

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March 1977
In Oregon v. Corvallis Sand Company, the Supreme Court of the United States on January 12, 1977, by a vote of 6 to 3, reversed a previous case (Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 313 in 1973) and declared that state law governs the location of riparian boundaries within a state. The case does not pertain to situations where the federal government is an adjoiner nor to cases between state boundaries.

This case involved a dispute between the State of Oregon and the Corvallis Sand Company over the ownership of two portions of lands underlying the Willamette River, which is navigable but not an interstate boundary. The first portion was within the riverbed at the time of Oregon’s admission to the Union. The river by avulsion (sudden change of the river channel) changed its course to a new location in Fisher Cut. With respect to Fisher Cut lands, the trial court found that avulsion, rather than accretion, had caused the change in the channel of the river, and therefore the title to the lands remained in Corvallis Sand Company, the original owner of the land before it became a riverbed. The Oregon Court of Appeals felt bound, under Bonelli, to apply federal common law to the resolution of this property dispute. After the case got into federal courts, 26 states by Amicus Curiae filed opinions favoring application of state laws.

After reading the Court’s report and the arguments, my simplified explanation of the outcome of the case is this: Upon admission to the Union, the beds of all navigable waters were vested in the states as an absolute title. Like all other real estate, once it passed into the state, the state controls the interpretation of boundary law. It was not within the federal government’s jurisdiction to regulate claims between owners (state and private or private and private).

I wish to point out that there are large variations in riparian laws from state to state. If the Bonelli case had not been reversed, many state cases would be put in jeopardy. In California on navigable rivers the mean low water line is the division line between the state and the upland owner, not the average water line per federal rule.

In the March 1968 edition of Surveying and Mapping, page 120, I summarized Hughes v. State of Washington. In this case Mrs. Stella Hughes owned a parcel that was patented prior to Washington’s statehood. She claimed to the mean high tide line and the rights to accretions by federal law. By state court interpretation the Court said upland owners took to the line where vegetation ceased and had no rights to accretions. The federal court reversed the state court and gave her the rights to the mean high tide line and the rights to accretions in accordance with federal law. Is there danger that this case will be reversed? Maybe. In the Corvallis Sand Company case the issue of owning prior to statehood was not raised. It certainly appears that land acquired after statehood is subject to the Washington Court decision.

To me the message is clear. The federal courts will not take jurisdiction over any boundary cases within a state except: (1) where the federal government has owned the land prior to statehood; (2) disputes between state boundaries. In doubt are the cases where a person acquired a right prior to statehood, and the right was diminished by state laws. If a person’s land is enlarged by state law, no problem can ensue; a state may give away its land if it so desires.

Author Michael Pallamary has compiled the writings and lectures of the late Curtis M. Brown. These works are published in The Curt Brown Chronicles.

A 67Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE