The 16-kilometer (10-mile) stretch of the Missouri River where it passes Great Falls,Montana, was once so swift, roiling, and precipitous that, in 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition spent 11 days hauling equipment and boats on an overland portage to continue their transcontinental journey.
Earlier this year, the same fast-flowing reach again came to national attention, when the United States Supreme Court unanimously clarified the ownership of the riverbed beneath the Missouri and two other Montana rivers, the Madison and the Clark Fork.
In February’s 9-to-0 ruling — which overturned a previous decision by the Montana Supreme Court from March 2010 — the high court also asserted, emphatically, that states have the authority to protect the public’s use and enjoyment of rivers, regardless of who owns the bottom. In doing so, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed a state’s authority to implement and enforce river safeguards to prevent interference with public use and environmental harms.
What might, at first glance, appear to be a loss for Montana has actually set a precedent to protect water as a public trust in the United States during an age when water is increasingly being viewed as a commodity.
Read more of this special to the Circle of Blue by James Olson: