Lawsuit Could Open Public Access to Colorado Rivers

Colorado is one of few U.S. states that has decided that private property owners supersede the public when it comes to access to rivers and streams.

June 30, 2022, 10:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A fly fisher casts on a fog-covered river.

Diane079F / Shutterstock

“Who owns the beds of Colorado’s rivers?”

Ben Goldfarb reports for High Country News about a lawsuit that could change Colorado’s unique law that declares most of the state’s rivers to be non-navigable, and thus owned by adjacent property owners.

“From a river-access standpoint, Colorado is among the West’s oddest states,” explains Goldfarb. “Federal law dictates that the beds of ‘navigable’ rivers — waterways once used as highways for commerce — belong to the states, which, in turn, generally allow boaters and anglers to use them.”

“Colorado has historically denied that it even has navigable rivers,” adds Goldfarb. “In 1912, the state’s Supreme Court opined that the state’s waterways — steep, rushing, canyon-bound — were ‘nonnavigable within its territorial limits.’ By that logic, the beds of even major rivers belonged not to the state, but to the owners of adjacent private properties.”

Enter Roger Hill, who was repeatedly attacked by a property owner while fishing on the Arkansas River and decided to sue the property owners and the state, claiming that the river is, in fact, navigable.

More details on the case Hill has built to prove the river is navigable, with commercial traffic using the river back to the 1870s, is included in the article. Goldfarb also notes that Colorado is not the only state to litigate the issues of public access to rivers in recent years.

“In 2010, the Utah Legislature barred the public from wading non-navigable waters through private property, effectively closing more than 40% of the state’s miles of fishable streams; although anglers and boaters sued, a judge upheld the law last year,” for example. Advocates in New Mexico succeeded in fighting back a law that restricted access to the state’s rivers in 2015.

Monday, June 27, 2022 in High Country News

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