April 04, 2023
By Joshua Bergan
A recent Fly Fisherman magazine story about stream access in Utah garnered plenty of attention contributing to a shift of momentum at Utah’s state legislature.
Cullen Battle’s article in the Oct-Dec 2022 issue entitled “A Failed Stream Access Bill in Utah” was distributed to over 100 legislators, government officials, and other interested stakeholders by the Utah Stream Access Coalition (USAC) and Utah Trout Unlimited (UTU) with the goal of enlightening lawmakers to the state of stream access in Utah. Copies of the donated magazines were hand-delivered to many of these parties “with discussion.”
“We got lawmakers’ attention, and interest is very high in resolving stream access, thanks in huge part to providing Fly Fisherman magazine to law makers,” Brian Anderson, Vice Chair of UTU said. “The unique message delivery plus a related 2023-session bill (House Bill 0208, or HB 208) kept stream access at the top of committee agendas and in the forefront of legislators’ minds. The result was that powerful, high-ranking leadership in both legislative chambers pulled USAC members aside into private conference to invite collaboration on future legislation to address stream-access to improve Utah’s ‘F’ grade.”
Though it’s been signed into law, Utah HB 208 was a “mostly innocuous” bill that sought to emphasize existing trespass laws in Utah’s stream access statute (UTAH CODE, TITLE 73, CHAPTER 29: PUBLIC WATERS ACCESS ACT).
“Although the penalties for trespass were already present in three other Utah Statutes, a certain landowner on the Provo River convinced his representative (Representative Scott Chew) to run the bill to parrot the same trespass language a fourth time in Utah Code in the “PUBLIC WATERS ACCESS ACT” section of Utah code,” Anderson said.
The landowner was frustrated because law enforcement is not currently arresting anglers on the Provo due to confusion about its “navigability,” so he sought to encourage law enforcement into action.
Battle’s article pointed to this confusing standard of navigability, which rose under a 19th Century federal law about public ownership of streambeds, and the current strength of the real estate lobby. It included a “Report Card” on certain states’ stream access laws–Utah was one of only two to receive an “F” grade.
“Utah passed a Law in 2010 that restricted public access to only navigable waters, and although Utah Stream Access Coalition v. Orange Street Development (2017) ruled that the Weber River was navigable, the state has not moved one inch toward identifying other navigable rivers in the state,” the report card stated. “(2022’s) HB 129 would have directed the Utah DNR to identify navigable water for public use, but due to the lobbying efforts of landowners and real estate developers, the bill did not make it out of the rules committee.”
While the 2023 legislative session has concluded and no direct action can be taken on stream access, support is always welcome at USAC and UTU.
That said, USAC is currently awaiting a Utah Supreme Court decision from an appeal that will determine the fate of the 12-plus-year-long lawsuit challenging the Public Waters Act of 2010. The decision is not expected to favor stream access, but surprises do happen as recent news from New Mexico illustrates. Read more about the Utah case here.
Anderson hopes to see legislation in the future that is similar to 2022’s HB 129 and encourages all anglers to get behind it. A law clarifying the rivers where access is allowed would be a productive stepping stone in the fight for improved stream access in Utah.
“A future bill similar to that 2022 bill should be the ‘rallying cry’ and call to action in the future,” he said.
Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman’s digital editor.