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Colorado Stream Access Case Dismissed

Posted: 06/08/2023
By: Hattie Johnson

The Colorado Supreme Court issued their decision on the Hill v. Warsewa case after hearing oral arguments just last month. The justices unanimously found that Roger Hill did not have standing to seek a legally protected interest to pursue his claim “that a river segment was navigable for title at statehood and belongs to the State.” This question in front of the state supreme court was a narrow one. The justice’s found that he did not, that “Hill has no legally protected right independent of the State’s alleged ownership of the riverbed onto which he  can hook his declaratory judgment claim”. It is an unfortunate decision as it limits who can bring a case to determine the status of the public’s right to access the river and it is an issue that is not going away.

We regret that the Court sidestepped this important issue and left it to be resolved in another case in the future. Because Colorado’s rivers play such an important part in our economy, biodiversity and quality of life, we need to move forward to ensure that the public has access to this vital resource. The attorney general’s office was adamant in their arguments that this issue needs to be determined by the legislature. We disagree, as included arguments in our amicus brief. Most other states in the intermountain west have addressed this issue first in the courts and responded with legislation. We will remain vigilant as to potential action in the upcoming legislative session and in the meantime work to better educate our members and the general public on the status of river access rights in Colorado.

The water development parties asked the Court to do away with the public trust doctrine, navigability doctrine, and the right to float through or access private property, but the Court studiously declined this invitation. Their opinion was narrowly addressing the issue of Mr. Hill’s standing to bring the case. Boaters and anglers live to fight on these issues another day.

Mr. Hill’s case made a difficult ask of the Court, because he wanted the Court to rule that the State owned the river bed when the State said “it’s not ours, and we don’t want it.”  The Court ruled that Hill has no right to make that ask of the State, but its ruling does not prevent anglers and boaters from raising the access question in the future under different legal theories.


American Whitewater

Hattie Johnson

Phone: 970-456-8533
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