Black Eagle Dam in Great Falls
Black Eagle Dam in Great Falls

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a case where the methods of determining stream ownership rights are at issue. In the case, PPL Montana LLC vs. Montana, the Supreme Court is faced with deciding what the proper criteria for determining whether a river is navigable, specifically as it relates to title rights, is the current navigability of a river or the navigability of a river at the time the state in which it is found was incorporated. Though this distinction may seem insignificant, the court's decision could have far reaching impacts on stream access rights around the country.

PPL Montana, a Montana power generation company that owns hydroelectric dams on the famous Missouri, Madison and Clark Fork Rivers, is arguing that the Montana Supreme Court decision which gave ownership rights of the streambeds of these three rivers to the State of Montana was an erroneous one. Both sides will present arguments on what the proper legal distinction determining navigability is, and both sides reportedly plan to cite information from the historical Lewis and Clark expedition.

Essentially, PPL Montana contends that the state's argument that the rivers were navigable at the time of Lewis and Clark's expedition is a faulty one, given the many noted obstacles and difficulty in doing so. The state's position is that, obstacles or not, the rivers as a whole were navigable at the time of Montana becoming a state and therefore ownership of the streambeds in question resides with the state and the people of Montana.

Although the impetus behind the case revolves around money, with the State of Montana claiming that PPL Montana owes them over $50 million in back-rent for use of the waterways -- as well as $7 million per year going forward -- the case will have far reaching implications on fishermen around the country. Although Montana has very strict stream access laws that are not expected to be affected by the court's decision, many other states have stream access laws that are not as strict and which are also based solely on stream navigability.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of PPL Montana, and sets a new precedent for the determination of streambed ownership, it could lead to privatization of streams and a reduction of public stream access in many states around the country.

26 states as well as 22 conservation groups have filed briefs supporting Montana's position in the case.

The court is slated to decide PPL Montana LLC vs. Montana by June 2012.