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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Case Could Affect Control of Nation’s Riverbeds

Posted Nov 30, 2011 6:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A U.S. Supreme Court case on the ownership of land below three Montana rivers could affect control of riverbeds throughout the country.

Montana asserts it owns the land and it is entitled to rent from a company that operates hydroelectric dams along the rivers, the Washington Post reports. The Supreme Court arguments cite history and a Supreme Court case that held states own the titles to rivers that were navigable at the time of statehood.

The justices are being asked to decide whether the ownership varies if certain sections of the river were not passable, or if it depends on whether the river as a whole is navigable, according to the newspaper account. The Montana Supreme Court ruled for the state and said the dam owner owes the state $53 million.

Both sides are looking to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for evidence on whether the rivers could be navigated. In other words, the court will be deciding “What did Lewis and Clark think?” the Post says.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer says a loss in the case would mean the riverbeds are owned by the federal government, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer told 9KXLH.com. The case, PPL Montana v. Montana, will be argued Dec. 7.

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