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Know the West

Utah fishermen no longer required to levitate


In Utah, as in many states, the public has a right to use the water in rivers for recreation. But the land underneath the state’s rivers is often privately owned. So what happens when someone touches the bottom?

The question floated all the way to the Utah Supreme Court thanks to Kevin and Jodi Conatser, who like to boat and fish the Weber River near their home in Roy, Utah. A group of landowners who wanted to keep the river to themselves employed barbed wire, death threats and finally an arrest by sheriff’s deputies at the boating takeout in their attempts to stop the couple. They accused the Conasters of committing criminal trespass every time their raft, paddles, or fishing tackle bumped the bottom of the river. In a victory for common sense – but a setback for the fishing hovercraft industry – the Court’s July 18 decision sided with the Conatsers, saying that the public’s right to use a river includes the right to come in contact with the river bed.

Thing is, Utah doesn’t even come close to being the Western state with the weirdest jurisprudence on the question of when the public can use a river. That distinction goes to Washington, where only rivers deemed capable of “floating a bolt of shingles” are considered navigable and therefore open to the public. The river-use statutes in other Western states run the gamut from friendly – Idaho boaters are allowed to cross private lands when portaging around river obstacles – to bizarrely restrictive. In Arizona, only rivers that were used for commerce at the time of statehood (in 1912) are automatically open to the public; a state board has declared that the Colorado River is the only river that passes this test. On all other rivers, boaters are subject to the whims of streamside property owners.

If you're curious about the legal status of rivers in your state, check out American Whitewater’s state-by-state guide to river-use laws. And if you live in Arizona, it couldn't hurt to read up on levitation.