Controversial river rights bill hung up in state Senate
March 21, 2010
Steamboat Springs — For Michael Holloran, good news came Friday afternoon.
Colorado House Bill 1188, which sought to settle the state's "right to float" laws, was put on hold rather than voted into law in the state Senate. A study was commissioned and isn't due to be reported until the end of October, ending for now what some view as a perilous threat to landholders' rights.
"I consider this legislation disastrous to people who own along the river," said Holloran, who has property on the Yampa.
For Kent Vertrees, that news came in a conversation with a like-minded friend, official word ending, at least for now, any hope of legislation generating what some view as common sense laws clarifying and reinforcing their rights to enjoy the state's bountiful river resources.
"I'm deeply saddened," he said. "This is very disappointing."
The bill pits owners who love their riverside land tracts against recreationalists who love to navigate those rivers.
It's an issue that has been hotly debated in the state for decades and, with Friday's action, one that doesn't appear close to a settlement any time soon.
Looking for a ruling
For Vertrees, Friday's action added frustration to frustration. By summer, Vertrees is a river rat. He teaches kayaking classes through Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus and has long paddled Colorado's navigable rivers and creeks, often as the manager of local rafting and tubing company Blue Sky West.
That has amounted to plenty of adventures, he said, but adrenaline and exhaustion aren't all he often feels.
"I support it because it clarifies the rules," he said Friday. "It has always been a contentious issue. For me, this would allow me to float knowing if I do everything I've always been doing, respecting landowners and acting in good behavior, that I'm OK, and I'm not doing anything wrong. It could give me some peace of mind that I'm doing everyone OK."
The status quo is full of gray area, but oftentimes rafters think they are fine crossing through private property as long as they don't touch the river bottom or the shore.
The bill would have hammered that right into stone and would have made allowance for touching the bottom of the river and the bank.
Like Vertrees, Bucking Rainbow Outfitters owner John Duty said clarification was the best thing the bill had to offer.
He wasn't surprised to learn he'd again be waiting for that comfort.
"We would have loved to have seen it happen," Duty said. "It would have been nice if you could sit down and say, 'Great. Here's what the deal is.'"
Duty was on the front lines of a major "right to float" dust-up in Routt County in 2005. Residents along the Elk River banded together to fight Bucking Rainbow's efforts to renew its license to run its spring whitewater rafting operations on the river.
Eventually, Routt County commissioners upheld the license, Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak saying at the time, "This is an issue that needs to be decided by the courts, not by the Routt County commissioners."
Five years later, the principal questions of that debate remain unanswered.
A fight near Gunnison
The current legislation came about because of a disagreement regarding rafting on the Taylor River near Gunnison in central Colorado. The owner of a fishing resort threatened legal action against a commercial river rafting company that frequently rode the whitewater through its private property.
Steamboat's river recreationalists were heavily in favor of the bill, which went through several modifications as it passed through Colorado's lawmaking process.
The version that passed a House of Representatives vote late last month would have allowed portage around any dangerous areas of a river. The version that lawmakers were poised to vote on Friday would have included all rivers rafted commercially between 2000 and 2009 and had been expanded to include commercial rafting companies and private floaters.
"The bill was very narrow until they added the public on to the commercial," Duty said. "Ultimately, if some kind of legislation doesn't get passed, like what this bill was or some other bill like it, it will ultimately go to a Supreme Court decision, in which, if you look at case law and the other states around, what you'll find is it will go to something that's quite a bit more liberal than what was proposed here."
The bill read as a disaster to Holloran and those who stood against it.
"It is like the state saying, 'We've decided we want people to walk through your house,' like it would open our doors and let them come through," Holloran said. "It would have a very serious impact on owners, and it is what I consider an egregious taking of private property."
The Steamboat-based lawyer said he hasn't had a lot of problems with traffic where the Yampa River runs through his property and, as it's not a regular rafting route, it likely wouldn't have been included in the bill. Still, opponents saw the bill as a bad first step with immediate ramifications for some and long-term problems for others.
At risk, opponents say, are improvements they've painstakingly made to the river on their land. They also fear a loss of value, first to their land and then to the potential to lease the ground to private fishing interests.
"It could have a very negative impact to work done by owners of private property, in addition to damaging the property value of people who have land along and over rivers," Holloran said.
The long-term effects of such a bill, he said, could be far more devastating than those short-term changes, removing fishing leases as a potential revenue source for farmers and ranchers who make up the fabric of Steamboat.
"They create open space," he said. "If they can't survive, then they sell the property and it becomes subdivided and the whole county is negatively impacted. One of the reasons people come to Steamboat is they drove over the pass and see that view from up there of a wide-open valley."
Whether such legislation eventually would have turned private rivers into rafting super-highways, as some feared, or simply clarified the already assumed rules, as others thought, remains unclear.
The only thing anyone is sure about is that those answers won't be coming before another spring season of rafting.
"It's been undecided a long time, so I guess we'll just keep operating at the status quo," Duty said.