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Utah Supreme Court upholds access to rivers and streams

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has upheld public access to streams and rivers, siding with an advocacy group on entry to the waterways.

A man fishes along the Weber River in 2012 (FOX 13 file image)

In a ruling published Thursday night, the state’s top court sided with Utah Stream Access Coalition in a lawsuit against private property owners along the Weber River. USAC sued, hoping to block property owners from cutting off their ability to get in the water along stretches of the river.

The Utah Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the water is publicly accessible.

“The district court ruled in USAC’s favor. It found that the one-mile stretch of the Weber River was ‘navigable water.’ And it accordingly held that USAC had a right of access to the waters in question. We affirm,” Justice Thomas Lee wrote.

In 2011, USAC sued to ensure a one-mile stretch of the Weber River remained accessible for people seeking to recreate and for commercial industry. USAC has said the area is popular for kayakers and for trout fishing and private property owners along the river started putting up signs blocking access to the water. The state was largely neutral on the issue, but raised concerns for property owners about the threat of litigation.

“In response to these and other concerns, USAC explained that it sought only recreational use rights for its members and not a title determination. Ultimately, USAC’s trial brief clarified that it rooted its right of access in the Public Waters Access Act, which in its view implicated a navigability standard imported from federal law,” Justice Lee wrote.

In ruling for USAC, the Court noted the Weber River’s use for commercial purposes as an example of “navigability,” therefore granting public access to the waterways. The Court did not address the issue of who has title of the land under the water.

That brought a partial dissent from now-retired Justice Christine Durham, who wrote: “I would hold that USAC has standing to bring a claim to quiet title to the lands at issue in this case in the State and the people of Utah. Accordingly, I would affirm the district court and hold that the State gained title to the land in 1896.”

The ruling is similar to another lawsuit that upheld public access to waterways and overturned a state law in 2015.

Read the full ruling by the Utah Supreme Court here: