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Utah Legislature: Bill allowing access to rivers washes out

SALT LAKE CITY — The fallout from a 2008 Utah Supreme Court decision that defined the right of recreational access to state waterways continued to feed a legislative imbroglio Monday as one of two bills trying to address the issue was dumped in a House floor vote.

At issue is the state's responsibility to define exactly what constitutes "access" to public waterways that run through private property. While landowners, with the backing of the powerful Utah Farm Bureau, maintain that the decision by the state's high court amounts to a land grab, sportsmen and representatives of the outdoor industry say the ruling stipulates that recreational use of waterways includes access, when necessary, to some adjacent private property.

A year ago, the Legislature took a shot at addressing the issue but couldn't find common ground between opposing groups. Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, said since that impasse she's been working toward a compromise with stakeholders on the issue, one she said was embodied in her proposal, HB80.

"We've worked on this bill a year and have had meetings with many different agencies," she said. "This bill acknowledges the main concerns … protecting both private property rights and access to rivers and streams that are owned by the public."

Fowlke's bill looked to define the access corridor for those recreating on Utah waterways as the water itself, and the adjoining bank or shore up to the "ordinary high water mark," a spot she said was not the flood level, or highest point the water has been, rather its seasonal, regular high flow mark.

That was a definition that didn't find much support among House members.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said for many Utah streams, that access corridor could vary from "the width of my desk to twice the width of this room."

"We may look at this as a fishing bill, a hunting bill or an access bill," he said. "But, in reality we are really debating one of the core values that we have actually made a commitment and raised our hands and swore we'd protect — private property."

Noel argued that Fowlke's take on a compromise eroded private property rights by mandating public access, a move he said not only treads on constitutional protections but also would work to devalue private river and lakefront real estate.

While Fowlke did get some support on both sides of the aisle, the final House vote split essentially along party lines, 50-23.

A more conservative interpretation of public water access is at the heart of HB141, sponsored by Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. His version includes a ban on access to "non-navigable" waterways that flow through private property, and keeps outdoor enthusiasts' out-of-water movements on navigable streams and rivers limited to pathways that have already been established.

House members had just started debating the bill Monday when the floor session ended, and will likely pick up the deliberation Tuesday.

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com