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The Colorado Riverbed Case, 1929-1931

October 17, 2007
by John Weisheit

The Colorado Riverbed Case, 1929 - 1931.

The Colorado Riverbed Case, heard by a special master from the United States Supreme Court, evolved when the State of Utah desired to extract natural resources along the bed of the Colorado River. Before this development could proceed, a legal determination of the riverbed's ownership, between the federal government and the state of Utah, was required.

In this case the plaintiff was the United States, and the defendant was the State of Utah. The final decision would hinge on whether the Colorado (the Green and San Juan rivers too) could be declared a navigable, or a non-navigable river.

The court issued its final decree in 1931, giving possession of the riverbed to the United States in non-navigable sections, for example, the rapids of Cataract Canyon. Possession of the riverbed in navigable sections were given to the State of Utah, for example, the flatwater of Meander Canyon below Moab, Utah.

The court, presided by Charles Warren, began acquiring testimony in October 1929, which is the month of Black Tuesday, the infamous crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression.

The decision of determining what was navigable and non-navigable was entirely dependent on the testimony of individuals who had actual experience navigating the Colorado River and its major tributaries in Utah.

Most of the witnesses were river runners, both professional and recreational; scientists and engineers, who worked for either the United States Geological Survey or the Bureau of Reclamation. Other testimony came from petroleum geologists and placer miners.

Persons of notable historic importance included Frederick Dellenbaugh, a member of the second Powell expedition; Franklin Nims, photographer of the Brown-Stanton expedition; members of the James Best expedition; photographer Ellsworth Kolb; members of the Clyde Eddy expedition; and members of the Pathe-Bray film expedition--to name but a very few.

It could be said that the Colorado Riverbed Case is the largest known oral history of the men and women who utilized the Colorado River basin in Utah prior to 1929. Paper documents of the Colorado Riverbed Case appear to be very rare and are known to be archived in institutions such as the Utah State Historical Society and the Utah State Archives.

An abridged version of the testimony was published at one time, by a non-government printing company. It would appear that this abridged narrative, in two volumes, is quite scarce and unavailable to the general public.

In 1997 I donated a complete microfilm set of the testimony, which I purchased from the Utah State Archives, to the Special Collections Department of the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

The digitization of the microfilm was provided by a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation.

Approximately 2,125 pages of the Colorado Riverbed Case were digitized from these microfilm records by iArchives of Orem, Utah.

The link to the records at the Marriott Library, University of Utah is here: The Colorado Riverbed Case




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