Who Owns a River?

Colorado legislators dispute whether or not a person can own a river.

Jul 29, 2010
Outside Magazine
Colorado River

Colorado River    Photo: Courtesy of NPS

At press time, Colorado legislators were haggling over a 30-year-old dispute that tackles an essential—or absurd, depending on your perspective—question: Can a person own a river? Since 1979, landowners in the state have insisted that rafters passing through their property could be prosecuted if they so much as set foot on the riverbed. Rafters say no way: Rivers are theirs to float freely, as long as they don't trash the banks. But Colorado's law has remained murky—allowing some rafting companies to float "historically run" rivers, while permitting property owners to block other waterways (occasionally with barbed wire). This spring, the issue sprang up again when a Taylor River landowner tried to block passage through his land. Now, landowners and raft companies are haggling in court and introducing ballot initiatives for next November's elections. Some experts say the issue could take years to sort out. So before things get ugly—and they will get ugly—we're going to chime in: Let's dispense with the antiquated notion that someone has a right to erect fences through moving water. Roadblocks have no place on navigable rivers.

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