In Colorado, there has been an ongoing disagreement about who should have access to the rivers and under what circumstances. Some people believe that the rivers should be open to everyone, allowing public use for activities like fishing, boating, and other recreational purposes. On the other hand, there are those who argue that only private landowners should have the right to access and use the river bottoms they own.
This was just the case for Roger Hill, where he decided to throw his waders on, rig up his fly rod, and fish the Arkansas River in Fremont County, Colorado. Hill decided to enter the Arkansas River on public land, in which land owner Mark Warsewa and Linda Joseph owned the land next to the river. Hill thought it was unfair that certain stretches of the river were off-limits just because they flowed through private property. Feeling passionate about this issue, Hill decided to take legal action and file a lawsuit. The State of Colorado river access debate gained steam after an altercation with Hill and the landowners, which resulted in a lawsuit with publications from various sources like the Denver Post.
Hill believed that the Arkansas River became navigable in 1876 when Colorado became a state, arguing, “the bottom of the river is public property.” However, Colorado stands out as one of the states where river access remains undefined by specific laws and court rulings, leading to conflicts being addressed individually on a case by case basis.
On multiple occasions, Hill fished on the Arkansas River in the same location. Hill alleges that he was threatened by Warsewa and Joseph, to be arrested for trespass, got river-rock thrown at him, as well as shot a gun at his fishing partner.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently stepped in to try and settle this dispute once and for all. Hill’s case sparked a lot of interest whether or not some rivers are “navigable,” a federal law called “navigability for title.” Defined by the Federal Commerce Clause, navigability for title is a “test” used to evaluate whether or not private land owners or the state owns the bed and the banks of the river. Hill claimed that the riverbed was not owned by Warsewa and Joseph, but “owned by the State of Colorado.”
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday, June 5th 2023, that Hill has no right to sue that the state’s rivers are public property. The court did not rule against public access, but rather determined Hill has no legal standing for this lawsuit. After many briefings, we sit at a stand-still and wait to see what happens next.
Colorado is one of the only states in the nation without a recognized navigable river. Colorado’s river access laws will stay up in the air, as other states in the west have recently adapted their laws. For instance, in Montana, you can access any part of the river up to the high water line, above or beyond the high water line is considered trespassing on private property. In Idaho, the laws are similar to Montana in which you must stay within the high-water marks of the stream or river, if there is an obstruction like a strainer, dam, or other obstruction, you must take the shortest and most direct route around the obstruction to get back into the river. Recently both Utah and New Mexico have altered their laws for public access to rivers and streams. Utah stream access just lost a big case on similar access issues.
Interested in reading more? Check out the publication from Jason Blevins in The Colorado Sun: “Colorado Supreme Court ends long river access dispute by ruling fisherman has no standing in right-to-wade argument.” Stay tuned as the story develops.