WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court sided with a power company Wednesday in a dispute with Montana over who owns the riverbeds beneath 10 dams sitting on three Montana rivers.
In a case that reached back to the travels of Lewis and Clark more than 200 years ago, the court voted unanimously to throw out a state court ruling that could have cost the company, PPL Montana, more than $50 million.
The power company had appealed a Montana Supreme Court ruling that the state owns the submerged land beneath the dams on the Missouri, Clark Fork and Madison rivers, and that PPL owes back rent and interest.
The justices said the Montana court was wrong to conclude that the state owns the riverbeds and ordered the state court to take another look at the case.
Historically, the titles to riverbeds beneath commercially navigable waterways go to state governments upon statehood. Non-navigable riverbed ownership stays with the federal government.
PPL had argued that eight of the 10 dams in question are built on non-navigable portions of the rivers that require portages around obstacles, such as the Great Falls of the Missouri, so the title to the lands under those dams should not go to the state.
Montana claims that the title to all the land under the rivers within its border transferred when it became a state in 1889. When deciding navigability, the entire river should be considered, not just segments, and a portage around a natural obstruction does not interrupt the flow of those rivers as a highway of commerce, the state argued.
Both sides cited the accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River to argue their case of whether the rivers were navigable or not navigable. Lewis and Clark had been sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.