Utah Water Grab Or Reaction


Brewing in Utah is a fight over the public rights to access public water flowing over private land. Many Utahans have enjoyed access on private lands to public water for several decades. But in July 2008, the Utah Supreme Court codified that right in a case decision of Conatser v Johnson.

On July 18, 2008, the Utah Supreme Court ruled unanimously (5-0) that the public can walk on privately owned stream beds for recreational purposes. The Court held, “[w]e hold that the scope of the easement provides the public the right to float, hunt, fish, and participate in all lawful activities that utilize the water. We further hold that the public has the right to touch privately owned beds of state waters in ways incidental to all recreational rights provided for in the easement, so long as they do so reasonably and cause no unnecessary injury to the landowner.” Conatser v. Johnson, 194 P.3d 897, 903 (Utah,2008).”

The two main points here are

  1. the public’s rights to walk on privately owned stream beds for recreational purposes
  2. and so long as they do so reasonably and cause no unnecessary injury to the landowner.

My sources indicate that there were severe instances of anglers cutting or tearing down fences to get access to previously private water that was in fact state owned water flowing over private stream beds. My sources also indicate that instances occurred where anglers and others trespassed on private property to the streams.

Therefore House Bill 187 in reaction to those abuses should not come as such a big surprise to the angling and outdoor recreation community. Yet after reading, House Bill 187, I have some major concerns about what appears to be a knee jerk reaction from ranchers, landowners and developers to any abuses that may have occurred.

The language in the bill strips the public of any rights to access state owned public water flowing over private land on all but 17 streams in the entire state of Utah. My sources indicate if House Bill 187 passes, fishing and any other access to about 70 to 80% of current streams will dissapear. Stream access to any stream with a single family residence within 500 feet of the stream would be denied is only one part of the bill.  To read the entire bill http://le.utah.gov/~2009/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0187.htm.

The angling industry in Utah provides some $700 Million Dollars to the Utah economy in lodging, food, gas, guide trips and gear and incidental purchases. This is no small sum of money.

I wonder how often  land owners, ranchers and developers pushing this bill have been willing to meet with the angling, boating and outdoor recreation industry to try and work out the issues. Not very often I suspect since the bill’s backers were try to sneak it quietly through the legislature. (A typical trick of big money trying to get something they want without anyone finding out about it.)

I wonder if the ranchers and other landowners have thought about charging access through their property to the streams. The South Park Ranchers in Colorado (South Park Fly Fishers) have been doing this for years. They charge a reasonable rod fee and only allow two anglers per day on the water. They have established trails to and from the streams with instructions about gates, catch and release and so on. Ah! A sensible solution where everybody wins except the lawyers. Unless the lawyers flyfish.

Unfortunately the Utah situation is shaping up to be one where somebody is going to sue no matter which way this goes. If House Bill 187 goes through as written, you can bet the angling and the outdoor recreation industry will not sit idely by and let their livehoods be destroyed by a bill that appears to quite radical in its language and a reaction to abuses that a small group of people may have caused.

What can you do to help? If you live in Utah,

  1. Call your state legislator. Find out who your representative is at this website http://le.utah.gov/Documents/find.htm
    Call them or email them to express your feelings about this bill. BE RESPECTFUL. Do not use form letters. Use your own words and experiences enjoying the streams and outdoors in Utah.
  2. Write Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. at http://www.utah.gov/governor/contact/index.html. There are two contact form links here. One for a response and one for no response.
  3. Write or call the Utah Office of Tourism and express your feeling about the negative impact on toursim in Utah from House Bill 187. There is both an email and an 800 number on this page.
  4. Educate yourself about House Bill 187 by reading it at http://le.utah.gov/~2009/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0187.htm
  5. Follow the progress of the bill through the session at http://le.utah.gov/~2009/status/hbillsta/hb0187.htm
  6. Contact the Utah Rivers Council at www.utahrivers.org or  ph: 801-486-4776,  fax: 801-466-0334. Dave, Zach or Ted can help you with information about how you can help.

If you live outside Utah:

  1. Write Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. at http://www.utah.gov/governor/contact/index.html. There are two contact form links here. One for a response and one for no response.
  2. Contact the Utah Office of Tourism with specific $$ numbers on how much you spend fishing or recreating in Utah a year. (See 3 above)
  3. Again Be Respectful and Polite. Doing it otherwise will not win any friends.

Together we the people can remind our government representatives that we are the government and they were elected to represent all of us. Not just a small group of big money persons.

Tight Lines and Good Fishing,
Marshall, Editor
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