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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rejects Montana’s ‘Short Interruptions’ Approach in Riverbed Dispute

Posted Feb 22, 2012 11:19 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against the state of Montana after diving into a riverbed rights dispute.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the opinion (PDF) for a unanimous court favoring a company that operates hydroelectric dams on three rivers in the state: the Missouri, the Madison and Clark Fork.

Montana had asserted it owned the disputed riverbeds, entitling it to at least $41 million in rent from the company, PPL Montana. The energy company had been paying rent to the federal government.

The Montana Supreme Court had granted summary judgment to the state, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in an opinion that found the lower court had used the wrong standard to determine ownership.

Kennedy cited a series of cases beginning in 1894 in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states own title to beds of rivers that were navigable at the time of statehood. Courts deciding such disputes should determine whether the river segment in dispute was navigable at the time of statehood, Kennedy said, not whether the river as a whole was navigable.

Kennedy said the Montana Supreme Court took the wrong approach when it said “short interruptions” in navigable stretches were insufficient to find nonnavigability. “The segment-by-segment approach to navigability for title is well settled, and it should not be disregarded,” Kennedy said.

Bloomberg News explains the impact of the decision. "For companies with facilities on rivers, the decision lifts a legal cloud," the story says. "Companies had said a ruling favoring Montana might have let other western states make similar rent demands. Environmental groups had said a victory for PPL in the case would weaken the ability of states to protect fisheries, river ecosystems and recreation areas."

The case is PPL Montana v. Montana.

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