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PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana

ELR Citation: 42 ELR 20045
Nos. 10-218, (U.S., 02/22/2012)

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a state court decision that Montana may charge rent from an electric company that owns dams on the Missouri, Madison, and Clark Fork rivers. The Montana Supreme Court held that title to the riverbeds passed to Montana when it became a state in 1889 and awarded almost $41 million in damages to the state for the company's use of the riverbeds. But the state court's ruling that Montana owns and may charge for use of the riverbeds rests on an infirm legal understanding of the rules of navigability for title under the equal-footing doctrine. To determine riverbed title under the equal-footing doctrine, rivers must be considered on a segment-by-segment basis to assess whether a particular segment of the river is navigable. The state court erred in discounting this well-settled approach. The state court's view that the segment-by-segment approach does not apply to short interruptions of navigability is not supported by Supreme Court precedent. Even if the law might find some nonnavigable segments so minimal that they merit treatment as part of a longer, navigable reach, it is doubtful that the segments in this case would meet that standard. In addition, the state court was wrong to conclude, with respect to the Great Falls reach and other disputed stretches, that portages were insufficient to defeat a navigability finding since, in most cases, portages require transportation over land rather than over the water. The state court also erred in relying on evidence of present-day, primarily recreational uses of the Madison River. Navigability must be assessed as of the time of statehood. Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.