In 2010, the Utah Legislature passed the ironically-named Public Waters Access Act; ironic because the Act’s effect was to prohibit the public from accessing and using roughly half of Utah’s rivers and streams, all of which are publicly-owned. Passage of the Act prompted concerned citizens to form the Utah Stream Access Coalition (USAC). USAC is currently prosecuting two lawsuits in Utah’s state courts, either of which, if successful, would restore the public’s right to lawfully-access and use many and perhaps all Utah rivers and streams. Decisions at the district court level are expected in both cases in 2014 and both are likely to end up before the Utah Supreme Court.
Because both lawsuits present a winner-take-all proposition for all concerned, USAC has
simultaneously been pursuing compromise on the issue of stream access and will be supporting a bill during the 2014 session of the Utah legislature that would provide that compromise. Sponsored by Rep. Dixon Pitcher, the bill would restore public access to many of Utah’s larger rivers and streams consistent with a similar compromise reached in Idaho in 1976; a compromise that, while cautiously accepted by interested parties when proposed, has worked well in Idaho ever since. Specifically, Rep. Pitcher’s compromise bill, HB37, would restore year-round public access to all Utah rivers and streams that, during ordinary high water, are capable of floating a boat or a six-foot long, six-inch diameter log, irrespective of who owns the streambed. To ensure due respect for private landowners and their land, the law would require the public to access a river or stream only from public property; generally stay at or below the ordinary highwater mark; strictly comply with existing littering and trespass laws; and would insulate private landowners from liability to members of the public using these waters.
Should the bill become law, USAC will voluntarily dismiss its lawsuits and give the new law a chance to succeed here as it has in Idaho. “The goal isn’t to take away land from its owner. The goal is to find a win-win situation for both public rights and private property owners. HB37 accomplishes this,” stated Kris Olson, President of USAC. Additional information is available at utahstreamaccess.org.