Utah Public Water Access

Restoring Public Access to Public Waters

Craig C. Coburn

May 2015

Since 2011, RBMN’s Craig Coburn has been serving as pro bono counsel to the Utah Stream Access Coalition (USAC) in lawsuits seeking to restore public recreational access to as many as 2,500 miles of Utah streams that was effectively eliminated in 2010 under Utah’s ill-named Public Waters Access Act.  Craig and another pro bono attorney tried one of those lawsuits to Third District Court Judge Keith Kelly in February 2015.  On April 10, Judge Kelly found in favor of USAC on all counts, ruling that the upper Weber River, from its headwaters in Holiday Park to the Town of Echo some 42 miles downstream, is navigable under the federal equal footing doctrine and, as such, the State owned the river bed in trust for the benefit of the people – just as the State owns the water – and that private landowners could not prohibit public access to or use of the river and its bed.  While in theory limited to the one-mile stretch of the upper Weber fronting the named defendants’ properties, the decision if affirmed on appeal, will establish a valuable precedent to restore public access to several hundred miles of other navigable Utah streams, including the Provo, Logan and Bear Rivers.  A second USAC lawsuit, this time regarding the upper Provo River, goes to trial at the end of August 2015.  If successful and affirmed on appeal, that lawsuit will invalidate the Act and restore public access to all 2,500 stream miles now off limits to the public.