The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear a case on Wednesday that could have huge implications for river and stream access across the United States.

The question is whether the Montana State Supreme Court ruled correctly when they said the Missouri River’s “Great Falls” were owned by the state instead of PPL Montana — an electrical utility with hydropower installations at Great Falls.

While the case revolves around a few obscure points — one of them being whether the Missouri was commercially navigable during the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition — the outcome could have a huge impact on recreational access, as this quote from the Great Falls Tribune story suggests:

“The fundamental thing here is PPL wants to take land owned by Montana for its own good,” said Bruce Farling, executive director for Montana Trout Unlimited, which filed a brief supporting Montana in the case. “The state of Montana is saying, ‘No, that’s our land, you’ve got to pay rent for occupying it.'”

With state ownership of major riverbeds, the public has more influence over conservation and fishery protection in instances such as the installation of pipelines and bridges, Farling said.

Montana already has the toughest stream-access law in the country, giving recreationists access to any natural stream irrespective of who owns the banks, he said. But the PPL case could affect recreation in states where stream access laws aren’t as strong, and are based on navigability, he said.

To get a sense for the extreme level of water law geekery involved, you should probably read the article, though I’ll try to keep an eye on this one for you.

UPDATE: ChiWulff posted a good summary of this issue here.

See you in court, Tom Chandler