FOLBR - Friends Of the Lower Blue River

Sustainable Hiker - Beyond the Trail Series

Colorado’s Riverbeds – Private or Public?

Right now, the question of who owns riverbeds in Colorado is under the microscope in Colorado’s Supreme Court.

Several years ago, Roger Hill repeatedly attempted to fish on a segment of the Arkansas River by standing on the riverbed that belongs to Mark Warsewa and Linda Joseph. After Mark and Linda attempted to forcefully remove Roger from their property, Roger sued Mark and Linda and claimed that title to the riverbed on their property belongs to the State of Colorado and is held in trust for public use under the public trust doctrine.

Under the public trust doctrine, the public is granted access to waterways for recreation, navigation, and subsistence. In Colorado, the public trust doctrine is limited to “navigable” rivers, yet, in 1912, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that there are no navigable rivers in Colorado.

Now, over a century later, the Colorado Supreme Court is revisiting this topic and deciding whether Roger is legally allowed to sue Mark and Linda to determine if a small segment of the Arkansas River on private land is navigable and thus held in trust for public use.

If the court determines that Roger is allowed to sue Mark and Linda, then anyone in Colorado may be legally allowed to sue private landowners to determine whether the riverbeds on their private property are actually private or held in trust for public use.

Such a decision could result in copious lawsuits filed to determine whether segments of streams and rivers on private lands all over Colorado are not navigable, and private, or navigable, and open for public use and access.

Regardless of how the court rules, many environmental, political, and economic issue will arise from the court’s decision in this matter.

Jackson Beck
FOLBR Board Member

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