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UNITED STATES v. KANSAS CITY LIFE INSURANCE CO.

decided: June 5, 1950.

UNITED STATES
v.
KANSAS CITY LIFE INSURANCE CO.



CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CLAIMS.

Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton

Author: Burton

[ 339 U.S. Page 800]

 MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, Kansas City Life Insurance Company, obtained judgment in the Court of Claims against the United States for $22,519.60, with interest from August 8, 1938. 109 Ct. Cl. 555, 74 F.Supp. 653. This sum was awarded as just compensation for the destruction of the agricultural value of respondent's farm land by the United States in artificially maintaining the Mississippi River in that vicinity continuously at ordinary high-water level. The land was not in any sense within the bed of the river. It was one and one-half miles from the river on a nonnavigable tributary creek. Its surface was a few feet above the ordinary high-water level of both the river and the creek. The United States, however, contended that because it maintained the river at this level in the interest of navigation it need not pay for the resulting destruction of the value of the respondent's land. We granted certiorari because of the importance of the constitutional questions raised. 334 U.S. 810. The case was argued at the 1948 Term and reargued at this Term.

Two principal issues are presented. The first is whether the United States, in the exercise of its power to regulate commerce, may raise a navigable stream to its ordinary high-water mark and maintain it continuously at that level in the interest of navigation, without liability for

[ 339 U.S. Page 801]

     the effects of that change upon private property beyond the bed of the stream. If the United States may not do so, without such liability, we reach the other issue: Whether the resulting destruction of the agricultural value of the land affected, without actually overflowing it, is a taking of private property within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We decide both issues in favor of the respondent, the first in the negative, the second in the affirmative.

The material facts found by the court below include the following:

Respondent is the owner of 1,710 acres of farm land in Missouri, having an elevation of 422.7 to 428 feet above sea level. The land borders on Dardenne Creek, a nonnavigable tributary entering the navigable Mississippi River one and one-half miles below the farm. The agricultural value of the land has been largely destroyed by the construction and operation by the United States of Lock and Dam No. 26 on the Mississippi at Alton, Illinois, 25 miles below Dardenne Creek. The United States has operated this dam since August 8, 1938, as part of a system of river improvements to provide a navigable channel in the Mississippi between Minneapolis and the mouth of the Missouri.*fn1 The effect of the dam has been to raise the level of the Mississippi at the mouth of Dardenne Creek to a permanent stage of 420.4 feet above sea level. This was its previously ascertained ordinary high-water mark.

Before the effect of the dam was felt, the respondent's land drained adequately through its subsoil and a simple system of ditches and pipes emptying into the creek.*fn2 It

[ 339 U.S. Page 802]

     was highly productive. When, however, the dam raised the river and the creek to 420.4 feet and maintained the water continuously at that level, this destroyed the agricultural value of the respondent's land at surface elevations between 423.5 and 425 feet.*fn3 The damage was caused by the underflowing of the land.*fn4 This undersurface invasion was substantially as destructive as if the

[ 339 U.S. Page 803]

     land had been submerged. The water table was raised both by the percolation of the water which rose and fell with the river and by the resulting blockade of the drainage of the land's surface and subsurface water.*fn5 The

[ 339 U.S. Page 804]

     reduction of $22,519.60 in the market value of the land is not disputed.

It is well settled that, under the Commerce Clause, U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, Cl. 3, the United States has the power to improve its navigable waters in the interest of navigation without liability for damages resulting to private property within the bed of the navigable stream.

[ 339 U.S. Page 805]

     "The dominant power of the federal Government, as has been repeatedly held, extends to the entire bed of a stream, which includes the lands below ordinary high-water mark. The exercise of the power within these limits is not an invasion of any private property right in such lands for which the United States must make compensation. [Citing cases.] The damage sustained results not from a taking of the riparian owner's property in the stream bed, but from the lawful exercise of a ...


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