Legal Update: Colorado River Access

Colorado’s laws are currently pretty murky when it comes to the question of river access. It’s one thing to access portions of a river flowing over public land, but what if the land on both sides of the river is private – is the bottom of the river private as well?

Roger Hill is trying to find out. He is a fisherman, and has had a number of conflicts with a landowner who owns property along the Arkansas River. Hill has sued the landowner, claiming that the streambed in navigable rivers is public property. Some coverage here. The basic argument is that federal law provides that if streams are “navigable” at the time of statehood, the streambeds under those navigable rivers are public property. The general idea is that if the stream could support travel by canoe or running logs downstream, it should be considered navigable and therefore public, regardless of whatever the state has to say on the matter (and Colorado hasn’t said much).

This is a somewhat inflammatory opinion article from an arguably biased source (Hill’s attorney) on the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on government immunity grounds. Claiming the state is siding with the landowner in question doesn’t seem quite right. Though I can’t access the pleading, the state seems to be saying it’s a necessary party, and since it hasn’t consented to be sued, the suit must be dismissed. Though it certainly doesn’t seem like the state is interested in joining forces with Hill.

It’ll be interesting to see how this case progresses, particularly given its impact on anglers, rafters, and, I suppose, river surfers.