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Law School Case Brief

Nebraska v. Iowa - 143 U.S. 359, 12 S. Ct. 396 (1892)


It is settled law, that when grants of land border on running water, and the banks are changed by that gradual process known as accretion, the riparian owner's boundary line still remains the stream, although, during the years, by this accretion, the actual area of his possessions may vary. The question is well settled at common law, that the person whose land is bounded by a stream of water which changes its course gradually by alluvial formations, shall still hold by the same boundary, including the accumulated soil. No other rule can be applied on just principles. Every proprietor whose land is thus bounded is subject to loss by the same means which may add to his territory; and, as he is without remedy for his loss in this way, he cannot be held accountable for his gain. Where a stream, which is a boundary, from any cause suddenly abandons its old and seeks a new bed, such change of channel works no change of boundary; and the boundary remains as it was, in the center of the old channel, although no water may be flowing therein. This sudden and rapid change of channel is termed, in the law, avulsion. But if the change is violent and visible, and arises from a known cause, such as a freshet, or a cut through which a new channel is formed, the original thread of the stream continues to mark the limits of the two estates. 


Iowa was admitted into the Union in 1846, and its western boundary as defined by the act of admission was the middle of the main channel of the Missouri River. Nebraska was admitted in 1867, and its eastern boundary was likewise the middle of the channel of the Missouri River. Between 1851 and 1877, in the vicinity of Omaha, there were marked changes in the course of this channel, so that in the latter year it occupied a very different bed from that through which it flowed in the former year. The State of Nebraska filed suit against the State of Iowa, to have the boundary line between it and Iowa determined. Both respective States claim jurisdiction over the same tract of land. To the bill filed by the State of Nebraska the State of Iowa answered, alleging that this disputed ground was part of its territory, and also filed a cross-bill, praying affirmative relief, establishing its jurisdiction thereof, to which cross-bill the State of Nebraska answered. Replications were duly filed and proofs taken.


Should the United States Supreme Court grant the boundary line in favor of Nebraska?




The court determined that the boundary line between the states was a varying line, so far as affected by changes of diminution and accretion in the mere washing of the waters of the Missouri River. Because the changes in the river were more gradual than not, the law of accretion applied to the river. The court further held that under the law of accretion, the boundary line still remained the center of the channel. The court further held that it would leave it up to the two states to agree to a designation of such boundary, and such designation would pass into a final decree. If no agreement was possible, then the court held that it would then appoint a commission to survey and report in accordance with its holding.

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