U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Riverbed Ownership

High court overturns Montana Supreme Court ruling that power company owes state rent.

Published on: Feb 24, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case PPL vs. Montana that the waterfalls of the Missouri River near Great Falls, Mont., are not navigable and therefore power company PPL does not owe the state rent and the state cannot claim ownership of the riverbed. By law states hold title to riverbeds only if the rivers are navigable.

"Farmers and ranchers prevailed this week when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of landowner property rights in the case of PPL v. Montana," said American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. "This decision puts ownership of streambeds and stream banks in the hands of their rightful owners."

The American Farm Bureau Federation filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with the Montana Farm Bureau in the case. Colorado Farm Bureau and Utah Farm Bureau also filed briefs in the case in support of the petitioning landowners.

Despite the ruling in favor of PPL, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock still has plans to attempt collecting rent from PPL, who has dams on the Missouri, Madison, and Clark Fork rivers.  

The Supreme Court did hand the case back to state courts for other disputed stretches of river, encouraging them to use the guidance of the federal court's decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that there is a significant likelihood that some of the other river stretches will fail this navigability test.

According to University of Montana School of Law associate professor Kristen Juras this decision is very important not only for PPL bur also for any landowners with property abutting rivers. She says the broader you describe navigability the less property rights riparian landowners have.

"I think it's an important decision really for all Montanans who enjoy or use the rivers for their businesses," PPL spokesman David Hoffman said.

PPL had argued that charging the power company rent would lead to the state charging irrigators and agricultural uses near rivers, which state officials had said wouldn't happen.

"This decision also helps ensure that farmers and ranchers will not have to pay government for the use of land or water from streambeds that run alongside or through their property," Stallman said. "This week's decision is a win for Farm Bureau members, farmers and ranchers nationwide and all private property owners."