Reclaiming Access to Utah’s Public Waters
A Proposal to the Utah State Legislators
Did you know that since the passing of House Bill 141 in 2010, every citizen in the state of Utah has been restricted access to 2,700 miles of public rivers and streams that flow through the state of Utah? I belong to a group of fishermen that are concerned about the passing of House Bill 141. This House Bill restricts us from recreating on rivers and streams that flow through private land. To put it in perspective, 2,700 miles is equivalent to a river running from the Utah State Capitol steps to the Northern most tip of Alaska. A quote that also put it in perspective for me is, “Wild places are fast disappearing. If we’re not vigilant now in preserving it, we’re going to look up one day and realize all the wild places are gone” (Durrant). To the community of fishermen, and myself included this is a very significant issue. We as a community of fishermen do not want to sit idly by until all public access to rivers and streams are restricted. With the passing of House Bill 141 our “wild places are fast disappearing” as Durrant writes. I understand this issue is not going to be solved overnight or even years. Furthermore, this issue is even more complex because of the two groups involved. Private landowners and fishermen both have rights that need to be protected throughout the process.
From my research of local online fishing forums, social media groups, and face to face conversations with local fishermen. The passing of House Bill 141 in 2010 is unacceptable and needs to be changed. In addition, my research shows that Idaho’s State Statute Title 36 passed in 1976 is the most widely accepted by Utah fishermen as a resolution we could live by, and one we feel is equal to both sides of the issue. Originally, Article 17, Water Rights, Section 1 of the Utah State Constitution written in 1896 protected the rights of Utah water users up until 2010 when House Bill 141 was passed. With the passing of House Bill, 141 Utah’s Water rights were tipped drastically in the private landowner’s favor. Continues court battles between private land owners and public are not the answer. Utah State Legislators must protect the State Constitution, and provide a resolution that is far too all those involved. I’m afraid, if no resolution is made the faith, and trust outdoorsman have in you will be lost.
Currently, House Bill 141 only allows fishermen to fish while they are floating on the river or stream. They cannot touch the river bed unless it is incidental to safety, i.e. crossing fences or going around dangers along the river or stream So how are we going to change this? First of all, we need to have House Bill 141 either amended or taken out completely. This, of course, would take some work, and help from all those involved. Unfortunately, I believe that private land owners would be hesitant in wanting House Bill 141 changed as it is currently to their benefit. As a landowner myself, I can see why they would be hesitant. In my opinion, the private land owners don’t want to restrict access but feel they must restrict access to protect their land. Admittedly, there are fishermen or outdoor enthusiast that are disrespectful, and give all others a black eye in the eyes of private land owners. Kris Olsen president of the Utah Stream Access Coalition once said, “We’re just trying to seek a lasting balance, such as Idaho has, that balances the private property rights of the landowner, and the rights of the public to access their public resource if they access it in a responsible manner” (Durrant).
Prior to 2010, Utah’s water access laws were similar to Idaho’s compromise made in 1976. To Summarize, Idaho’s State Statute Title 36 allows fisherman to fish along rivers and streams that flow through private land as long as they stay within the high-water mark of the river or stream. Furthermore, access has to be by public right of way or with permission of a private land owner. As you can see this is pretty different from Utah’s House Bill 141 which only allows fishing on private property if you are floating on the river or stream.
Private land owners, and outdoorsman both hold equal rights to this valuable resource. For example, in 1896 when Utah was seeking for statehood, there was a constitution written. In this constitution, our water rights were addressed in Article 17 “Water Rights” Section 1, which reads “All existing rights to the use of any of the waters in this State, for any useful or beneficial purpose, are hereby recognized and confirmed.” Granted, this article could be interpreted in many different ways and manipulated into what someone wants it to say. To me, it’s pretty self-explanatory. First I’d like to analyze “any of the waters” in this article. I interpret this to mean just as it says “any” water in the State of Utah, even if this water passes over private land, it is still the State of Utah’s water. We as citizens of Utah have a right to that water “for any useful or beneficial purpose.” So, what is a “useful or beneficial purpose?” Again, this can be interpreted in many different ways. First, what is the use of these waters? This can be anything from water to drink, to growing or harvesting food, and even transportation of goods. Furthermore, these waters are used to water livestock as most private land owners do with the water that flows through their land. There are too many uses to describe here, but I think you get the idea.
Second, what are the benefits of the state’s water? As a fisherman, I, of course, think of fishing. Fishing in the state of Utah dates back centuries as Native American Tribes used this resource for food. Furthermore, when the Mormon Pioneers settled here in 1847, they as well used this resource for food. It was a great benefit to the Mormon settlers, and local Native American Tribes. Currently, fishermen use these waters for those same purposes. A lot of fishermen take home their catch to eat with their families. Another benefit is how using these waters bring families together. I’m sure you have, at some time in your life, gone boating or swimming in a lake, river or stream with friends or family. Again, there are too many benefits to list here.
State Legislators must find a compromise but are not alone. For example, there are organizations in the state of Utah that are at your beckon call ready, and willing to do whatever it takes to resolve this issue. For example, the Utah Chapter of Trout Unlimited is a boots on the ground organization that organizes many service projects to help the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources. They help to restore habitat and native trout species. Currently, this organization is helping restore the native Bonneville Cutthroat Trout to Mill Creek in the Salt Lake Valley. The reason for the work is “During the time period of early development in the Salt Lake Valley, all of the small and large streams that drain the Wasatch Mountains on the east side of Salt Lake City became the sole source of much-needed water and food for the new communities. Many of these streams were quickly dewatered to produce agricultural crops and the native trout, the Bonneville cutthroat trout, experienced heavy overfishing because they provided a provisional food source in times of need.” As you can see, Trout Unlimited is your partner in bringing back what once was, and still is a valuable resource if we work together. As well as a resource for bridging the misperception gap between private landowners and fishermen.
Furthermore, this issue has been through numerous court battles since House Bill 141 was passed in 2010. As recent as this year, this Bill was found unconstitutional by, “Judge Derek Pullan of Utah’s 4th District Court ruled in favor the public’s right to lawfully access and recreate on ALL of Utah’s public rivers and streams.” As stated on the Utah Stream Access Coalition blog. Unfortunately, this ruling was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court in February 2016. Clearly, you can see this has some merit to be looked into even closer. I challenge you to start the process now! To have this House Bill removed or changed to where equal rights are given to ALL those involved in this issue. You have the power, and the resources to resolve this issue, and bring equality to all citizens of this great State not just the privileged. I’m asking you to stand up now, and do what is right! Of course, protect the rights of all those involved, and up hold the Constitution of the State of Utah. My hope is to take my children, and their children fishing, and not be restricted to where we can or cannot fish. In brief, please take the time to look into this issue, and take it into your heart, and see why this is an important issue to the outdoorsman in Utah.
In conclusion, I understand this may not seem like a pressing issue to some, but is one that affects everyone, and needs to be changed. I would like to express to you my appreciation for taking the time to read this. I understand I’m not as educated on this topic as probably you are, but I’m very passionate about it. Like I wrote above “Wild places are fast disappearing. If we’re not vigilant now in preserving it, we’re going to look up one day and realize all the wild places are gone” (Durrant). I feel that if we don’t work now to get this issue resolved, it will only result in the issue growing larger and harder to come to some type of compromise. I want to protect the rights of everyone involved, as well as I’m sure you do also.
Burrnet Paul, “Restoring living history, the Bonneville cutthroat trout, in Mill Creek, UT”, Trout Unlimited Blog, 06 March, 2015. Web. 30 July. 2016
Idaho State Legislators, Idaho Statute Title 36 Fish and Game, Chapter 16. 1976. Web. 26 July. 2016
Durrant Spencer, “Energy development greed threatens Utah fishing”, Standard Examiner Newspaper, 20 May, 2015 Web. 26 July. 2016
Utah State Legislators, House Bill 141 “Public Waters Access Act” 2010. Web, 27 July. 2016
Utah State Constitution, Article 17, Water Rights, Section 1. 1896. Web. 29 July. 2016
Utah Stream Access Coalition Board of Directors, Access Restored, Utah Stream Access Coalition Blob, 5 November 2015. Web. 30 July. 2016