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decided: June 8, 1987.



O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, Powell, and Scalia, JJ., joined. White, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 209.

Author: O'connor

[ 482 U.S. Page 195]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether title to the bed of Utah Lake passed to the State of Utah under the equal footing doctrine upon Utah's admission to the Union in 1896.



The equal footing doctrine is deeply rooted in history, and the proper application of the doctrine requires an understanding of its origins. Under English common law the English Crown held sovereign title to all lands underlying navigable waters. Because title to such land was important to the sovereign's ability to control navigation, fishing, and other commercial activity on rivers and lakes, ownership of this land was considered an essential attribute of sovereignty.

[ 482 U.S. Page 196]

     Title to such land was therefore vested in the sovereign for the benefit of the whole people. See Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 11-14 (1894). When the 13 Colonies became independent from Great Britain, they claimed title to the lands under navigable waters within their boundaries as the sovereign successors to the English Crown. Id., at 15. Because all subsequently admitted States enter the Union on an "equal footing" with the original 13 States, they too hold title to the land under navigable waters within their boundaries upon entry into the Union. Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212 (1845).

In Pollard's Lessee this Court announced the principle that the United States held the lands under navigable waters in the Territories "in trust" for the future States that would be created, and in dicta even suggested that the equal footing doctrine absolutely prohibited the United States from taking any steps to defeat the passing of title to land underneath navigable waters to the States. Id., at 230. Half a century later, however, the Court disavowed the dicta in Pollard's Lessee, and held that the Federal Government had the power, under the Property Clause, to convey such land to third parties:

"By the Constitution, as is now well settled, the United States, having rightfully acquired the Territories, and being the only government which can impose laws upon them, have the entire dominion and sovereignty, national and municipal, Federal and state, over all the Territories, so long as they remain in territorial condition. . . .

"We cannot doubt, therefore, that Congress has the power to make grants of lands below high water mark of navigable waters in any Territory of the United States, whenever it becomes necessary to do so in order to perform international obligations, or to effect the improvement of such lands for the promotion and convenience of commerce with foreign nations and among the several

[ 482 U.S. Page 197]

     States, or to carry out other public purposes appropriate to the objects for which the United States hold the Territory." Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S., at 48.

Thus, under the Constitution, the Federal Government could defeat a prospective State's title to land under navigable waters by a prestatehood conveyance of the land to a private party for a public purpose appropriate to the Territory. The Court further noted, however, that Congress had never undertaken by general land laws to dispose of land under navigable waters. Ibid . From this, the Court inferred a congressional policy (although not a constitutional obligation) to grant away land under navigable waters only "in case of some international duty or public exigency." Id., at 50.

The principles articulated in Shively have been applied a number of times by this Court, and in each case we have consistently acknowledged congressional policy to dispose of sovereign lands only in the most unusual circumstances. In recognition of this policy, we do not lightly infer a congressional intent to defeat a State's title to land under navigable waters:

"The United States early adopted and constantly has adhered to the policy of regarding lands under navigable waters in acquired territory, while under its sole dominion, as held for the ultimate benefit of future States, and so has refrained from making any disposal thereof, save in exceptional instances when impelled to particular disposals by some international duty or public exigency. It follows from this that disposals by the United States during the territorial period are not lightly to be inferred, and should not be regarded as intended unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain." United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. 49, 55 (1926).

We have stated that "[a] court deciding a question of title to the bed of a navigable water must . . . begin with a strong presumption against conveyance by the United States, and

[ 482 U.S. Page 198]

     must not infer such a conveyance unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain, or was rendered in clear and especial words, or unless the claim confirmed in terms embraces the land under the waters of the stream." Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544, 552 (1981) (internal quotations omitted; citations omitted). Indeed, in only a single case -- Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma, 397 U.S. 620 (1970) -- have we concluded that Congress intended to grant sovereign lands to a private party. The holding in Choctaw Nation, moreover, rested on the unusual history behind the Indian treaties at issue in that case, and indispensable to the holding was a promise to the Indian Tribe that no part of the reservation would become part of a State. Montana v. United States, supra, at 555, n. 5. Choctaw Nation was thus literally a "singular exception," in which the result depended "on very peculiar circumstances." 450 U.S., at 555, n. 5.


Utah Lake is a navigable body of freshwater covering 150 square miles. It is drained by the Jordan River, which flows northward and empties into the Great Salt Lake. Several years before the entry of Utah into the Union, "the opening of the arid lands to homesteading raised the specter that settlers might claim lands more suitable for reservoir sites or other irrigation works, impeding future reclamation efforts." California v. United States, 438 U.S. 645, 659 (1978). In response, Congress passed the Sundry Appropriations Act of 1888, 25 Stat. 505 (1888 Act), which authorized the United States Geological Survey to select "sites for reservoirs and other hydraulic works necessary for the storage and utilization of water for irrigation and the prevention of floods and overflows." Id., at 526. The Act further provided that the United States would reserve the sites that might be so selected:

"All the lands which may hereafter be designated or selected . . . for sites for reservoirs, ditches or canals for

[ 482 U.S. Page 199]

     irrigation purposes and all the lands made susceptible of irrigation by such reservoirs, ditches or canals are from this time henceforth hereby reserved from sale as the property of the United States, and shall not be subject after the passage of this act, to entry, settlement or occupation until further provided by law." Id., at 527.

On April 6, 1889, Major John Wesley Powell, the Director of the United States Geological Survey, submitted a report to the Secretary of the Interior stating that the "site of Utah Lake in Utah County in the Territory of Utah is hereby selected as a reservoir site, together with all lands situate within two statute miles of the border of said lake at high water." App. 19. The Commissioner of the General Land Office subsequently informed the Land Office at Salt Lake City of the selection of "the site of Utah Lake" as "a reservoir site" and instructed the Land Office "to refuse further entries or filing on the lands designated, in accordance with the [Sundry Appropriations] Act of October 2, 1888." Letter of Apr. 11, 1889, App. 21. The selection of Utah Lake as a reservoir was confirmed in the official reports of the Geological Survey to Congress.

Because the 1888 Act reserved all the land that "may" be designated, the 1888 Act had the practical effect of reserving all of the public lands in the West from public settlement. California v. United States, 438 U.S., at 659. Therefore, in 1890 -- in response to "a perfect storm of indignation from the people of the West," ibid. (quoting 29 Cong. Rec. 1955 (1897) (statement of Cong. McRae)) -- Congress repealed the 1888 Act in the Sundry Appropriations Act of 1890, ch. 837, 26 Stat. 371 (1890 Act). In repealing the 1888 Act, however, Congress provided "that reservoir sites heretofore located or selected shall remain segregated and reserved from entry or settlement as provided by [the 1888 Act]." Id., at 391. Six years later, on January 4, 1896, Utah entered the Union. The Utah Enabling Act of July 16, 1894, provided that Utah

[ 482 U.S. Page 200]

     was "to be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States." 28 Stat. 107.

In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management of the United States Department of the Interior issued oil and gas leases for lands underlying Utah Lake. Viewing this as a violation of its ownership and property rights to the bed of Utah Lake, the State of Utah brought suit in the District Court for the District of Utah seeking a declaratory judgment that it, rather than the United States, had title to the lakebed. Utah also sought an injunction against interference with its alleged ownership and management rights. In its complaint, Utah claimed that on January 4, 1896, by virtue of the State's admission into the Union on an equal footing with all other States, the State of Utah became the owner of the bed of Utah Lake. The United States, in turn, answered that title to the lakebed remained in federal ownership by operation of Major Powell's selection of the lake as a reservoir site in 1889. The District Court granted summary judgment for the United States, holding that the United States held title to the bed of Utah Lake. 624 F.Supp. 622 (1983). The District Court found that ...

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