August 7, 2016
August 7, 2016
ON STREAM ACCESS, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND “GREENIES.”
I have some very good friends who hail from the state of Colorado, but every time I see a car pass by with Colorado plates I feel resentful. The reason is that while these “greenies” can come up to Idaho and Montana to fish within the mean high water marks of our great trout streams, Colorado does not extend reciprocity to us foreigners. I felt the same way when I heard that people from the great United States are/were limited to ten consecutive days on steelhead rivers in British Columbia.
In law school I took a bunch of environmental and resources law courses, including Water Resources Law. In that seminar I learned a lot about fishing access on western rivers. In the 13 original colonies the “riparian” doctrine governs access; adjacent property holders own the bed of rivers and can make “reasonable use” of the flow. Out in the western territories prior to statehood, the first person who “appropriated” water from rivers gained superior use rights, but the riverbed was subject to a federal “navigation servitude,” i.e. the federal government owned the bed of any river that was historically “navigable.” For example, if the river was used in commerce even if it was just a vehicle for floating logs.
In 1954, Congress passed the “Submerged Lands Act” which left it up to individual western states to decide whether the river bed would be owned by adjacent land owners or by the general public in trust. Some states (including Idaho and Montana) passed statutes giving title up to the mean high water level to landowners but allowing fishermen to enter within the mean high water mark at intersections such as county roads or public lands. Some states achieved the same result by judicial decision. But, a number of states gave title of the bed to adjacent landowners, including Colorado and Wyoming, and did not enact a “stream access law” like we have in Idaho. The result is that large portions of blue ribbon waters in Colorado and Wyoming cannot be fished by the general public if they intend to anchor a boat, wade fish or otherwise touch the bottom on a side of a river that is not bordered by public lands. The North Platte River, for example, has signs along the stream bank notifying floaters when they are floating past privately owned lands. In Colorado a number of landowners have formed private fishing clubs with the result that public access to these waters is next to impossible.
On Silver Creek and many other spring creeks, the “mean high water mark” is essentially vertical, i.e. when the creek flow subsides no ground is exposed. However, one can still enter the creek at a county road crossing such as Kilpatrick Bridge. You can also enter the creek with the permission of landowners. One notable landowner is the Nature Conservancy which allows the pubic to walk across terra firma to access the creek. Nick Purdy has allowed walking access down stream of Highway 20 for quite some time and recently gave a permanent easement of record regarding some of that property. He has even installed stiles so that anglers can cross over the barbed wire fences without destroying their waders. Access to waters of the Double R Ranch (up stream of Highway 20), however, is limited to Members of the fishing club. Although the general public is free to float tube fish The Pond, and may float from Kilpatrick Bridge down to Highway 20, they may not exit the creek onto the banks or the islands because there is no mean high water mark; it is a long float better undertaken on the long days of June and July.
It is the 100 plus Members of the Double R Fishing Club who have funded the stream restoration efforts undertaken by Nick Purdy over the past decade. The focus has been on lowering stream temperatures and removing silt inherited from upstream neighbors following 100 years of now outdated agricultural practices (e.g. flood irrigation, grazing livestock to the banks, etc.) We have not received one cent of public money; the entire $1.5 million we’ve spent has been contributed by members, the Purdys and private grants. Contrary to popular belief, the restoration efforts have not solely benefited the Double R stretch of Silver Creek. The average angler may not realize the extent to which the creek’s trout, both Rainbow and Browns, migrate seasonally throughout the creek. The Brown trout, in particular, hang down below Highway 20 until two thing have occurred: the end of the Brown Drake hatch and the annual warming of the water. The dredging of The Pond, the reduction of its surface area (by building islands and abandoning part of shallow areas) has lowered the temperature coming out of the new dam (with bottom release capabilities) by 3 to 5 degrees depending on when temperature is measured. Whereas before the Project the water warmed at a rate of 25 degree per mile in The Pond, now the warming rate is closer to the 2 degrees per mile experienced in the rest of the creek. Indeed, the coldest measured water temperatures are now immediately below the spillway/fish ladder of the new dam. No matter their location, virtually all of Silver Creek trout benefit from cooler water. I am convinced that had we not performed the Project we would have seen fish kills down by Picabo Bridge.
Doug Andres, Stream Keeper, Double R Ranch