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United States v. Willow River Power Co. - 324 U.S. 499, 65 S. Ct. 761 (1945)

Rule:

A riparian owner has no right as against improvements of navigation to maintenance of a level below high-water mark. The high-water mark bounds the bed of the river. Lands above it are fast lands and to flood them is a taking for which compensation must be paid. Lands below that level are subject always to a dominant servitude in the interests of navigation and its exercise calls for no compensation. 

Facts:

Respondent-plaintiff Willow River Power Company operated a hydroelectric generating plant, which was powered by the fall of dammed water from a non-navigable river to the natural level of a navigable river. When the Government raised the level of the navigable river to improve its navigation, Willow River’s capacity to produce electricity was diminished. The court of claims awarded Willow River damages against the Government on the basis that the loss of power was a "taking" of private property for which just compensation was required by the Fifth Amendment. The Government sought review.

Issue:

Did the loss suffered by the operator of the hydroelectric generating plant, as a riparian owner, constitute an actual taking of property that required "just" compensation pursuant to the Fifth Amendment?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment. The Court explained that the right of riparian owners to be free from interferences on navigable streams were subject to a dominant public interest in navigation. The company's strategic position on the navigable river for the development of power did not give rise to any right to maintain it as against interference by the Government in aid of navigation. The Court held that such loss was not an actual taking of property that required compensation pursuant to the Fifth Amendment.

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