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State Sovereignty — navigable waters

U.S. Supreme Court


State Sovereignty — navigable waters

To determine riverbed title under the equal-footing doctrine, a court must consider the river on a segment-by-segment basis to assess whether the segment of the river, under which the riverbed in dispute lies, is navigable or not.

The State Supreme Court erred in discounting this well-settled approach. A key justification for sovereign ownership of navigable riverbeds is that a contrary rule would allow private riverbed owners to erect improvements on the riverbeds that could interfere with the public’s right to use the waters as a highway for commerce. Because commerce could not have occurred on segments nonnavigable at the time of statehood, there is no reason to deem those segments owned by the State under the equal-footing doctrine. Practical considerations also support segmentation. Physical conditions affecting navigability vary over the length of a river and provide a means to determine appropriate start points and end points for disputed segments. A segment approach is also consistent with the manner in which private parties seek to establish riverbed title. Montana cannot suggest that segmentation is inadministrable when the state courts managed to apportion the underlying riverbeds for purposes of determining their value and PPL’s corresponding rents. The State Supreme Court’s view that the segment-by-segment approach does not apply to short interruptions of navigability is not supported by this Court’s Utah decision. 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. Applying its “short interruptions” approach, the State Supreme Court found the Great Falls reach navigable because it could be managed by way of land route portage, as done by Lewis and Clark. But a portage of even one day would demonstrate the need to bypass a nonnavigable river segment. Thus, the State Supreme 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. In most cases, they are, because they require transportation over land rather than over the water. This is the case at least as to the Great Falls reach. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the State Supreme Court misapplied The Montello, 20 Wall. 430. There, portage was considered in determining whether a river was part of a channel of interstate commerce for federal regulatory purposes. The Montello does not control the outcome where the quite different concerns of the riverbed title context apply. Portages may defeat navigability for title purposes, and do so with respect to the Great Falls reach. Montana does not dispute that overland portage was necessary to traverse that reach, and the trial court noted the waterfalls had never been navigated. The Great Falls reach, at least from the head of the first waterfall to the foot of the last, is not navigable for purposes of riverbed title under the equal-footing doctrine. There is also a significant likelihood that some of the other river stretches in dispute fail this federal navigability test. The ultimate decision as to these other disputed river stretches is to be determined, in the first instance, by the Montana courts on remand, which should assess the relevant evidence in light of the principles discussed here. Pp. 14–21.

2010 MT 64, 355 Mont. 402, 229 P. 3d 421, reversed and remanded.

10-218 PPL Montana, LLC, v. Montana

Kennedy, J.

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