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California ex rel. State Lands Comm'n v. United States

Citation: 17 ELR 20313
No. No. 85-1965, 805 F.2d 857/(9th Cir., 12/02/1986)

The court holds that the United States and not California has title to land exposed as a result of the recession of Mono Lake. Approximately 12,000 acres of lake bed has been exposed during the 45 years that the City of Los Angeles has been diverting water from the lake's feeder streams to help supply the city's water needs. California, which owned the bed of Mono Lake as land underlying navigable waters within its boundaries, filed a quiet title action against the United States, which owns 70 percent of the land surrounding the lake. The court first holds that federal law applies in determining the ownership of the exposed lake bed. The court rejects the state's argument that, although federal law generally applies to disputes concerning a reliction or accretion to federal land, a balancing of federal and state interests dictates that state law should apply in this case. The United States' claim is based on § 5(a) of the Submerged Lands Act, which excepts accretions to federal land from the grant of submerged lands to the states. Even if the balancing test put forward by the state were applied, a federal rule of decision would result. The case cited by the state did not involve §5(a), and the parties' relationships were those of equal riparian landowners rather than a dispute between the United States as a littoral landowner and the state as sovereign owner of submerged lands. Nor does California's challenge to the United States' characterization of the Mono Lake recession as a reliction affect the choice of law determination. The court holds that the federal common law of reliction supplies the appropriate rule of decision. Federal law defines a reliction as previously submerged land which becomes exposed by the gradual recession of water, and makes no exception for relictions resulting from artificial causes. The court holds that the district court properly applied the federal common law of reliction. Land exposed from a recession of water or reliction becomes part of the property of the upland landowner if the change was gradual and imperceptible, and the lower court's conclusion that the average person would not have observed the movement of the shoreline as it was occurring is consistent with this test as well as the measurability test advocated by the state. Finally, the court holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting two environmental groups permissive intervention on the side of the United States under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24. The intervenors' defense presented questions of law and fact in common with the main action, and the state has not shown that it has been prejudiced.

Counsel for Plaintiff-Appellant
Murray G. Sagsveen
Zuger & Bucklin
316 N. 5th St., P.O. Box 1695, Bismarck ND 58501-1695
(701) 223-2711

Counsel for Defendants-Appellees
William B. Lazarus
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2000

Before Kennedy and Brunetti, JJ.