Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Montana Supreme Court resolved a long-running water rights dispute, which focused on whether the Mitchell Slough was a natural watercourse:
In a case with statewide implications, the Montana Supreme Court ruled Monday that Mitchell Slough is open to recreation under the state's stream access law.
The court said the 16-mile-long slough roughly follows the historical course of a waterway mapped 130 years ago, and therefore is subject to public access and required permitting, as are other natural waterways.
The 54-page decision overturned two earlier rulings by state district courts that found the slough was not a “natural, perennial-flowing stream. . . .
Since nearly every river and stream in Montana has been affected in some manner by man, the high court concluded: “The District Court's dictionary-based definition, which essentially requires a pristine river unaffected by humans in order to be deemed natural, results in an absurdity: For many Montana waters, the SAL would prohibit the very access it was enacted to provide.”
The Supreme Court also overturned the lower court's conclusion that the water captured by the slough in return flows from irrigation was “artificial” and “not natural,” saying that many Montana streams carry discharged irrigation flows.
The court also disputed landowners' claims the slough was a “man-made water conveyance system” that exists only because of man's manipulations.
“The claim that man has made the Mitchell Slough is a bold one, indeed,” the court's decision reads.
The court did offer a caveat on the issue of public access.
The slough runs through private property and the public only has the right to recreate under the terms of the state streamside access law, which allows access on the water and up to the ordinary high-water mark on the slough's bank, the court said.
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