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Georgians Ask Your Legislators to Affirm the Right to Float

Posted: 02/22/2024
By: Kevin Colburn

The Georgia General Assembly is considering legislation that would subtly shift the rights of the public to navigate and otherwise enjoy the state’s rivers. This is the second such bill in as many years, and more legislative action is anticipated on the topic. The legislature is hearing from special interest groups that seek exclusive private rights to Georgia’s rivers, and they also need to hear from the public that is concerned for their basic rights to paddle the state’s rivers. 


In most cases it is up to states to determine the public’s rights to navigate rivers and streams. They do this because under the ancient public trust doctrine that was adopted in the United States, rivers are shared by all people for travel just as a road or trail might be. While the river-use laws of many states like North Carolina and South Carolina evolved over the centuries to clearly maintain the public’s right to traverse rivers, other states like Georgia stayed stuck in a pre-civil war perspective of commercial river use that doesn’t make sense today. The public right to paddle rivers in Georgia is not as well supported as it is elsewhere, and this makes legislation addressing the topic fraught with both risk and opportunity. 


Last year the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation that explicitly added fishing and hunting to existing paddling rights on "navigable" rivers, and acknowledged that the public trust doctrine is the basis of river access laws in the state. Now, new legislation aims to remove that reference to the public trust doctrine (this is not great), while also acknowledging a right to touch the streambed while navigating the river (this is good). The legislation though does not affirm a right to paddle the many rivers in the state that are capable of being paddled but are not large enough to support civil war era barge traffic (which is one state test for navigability and thus public rights). 


HB 1172 and SB 542, now being debated in the General Assembly, presents an opportunity to fix this problem and guarantee that Georgians have the right to float all streams capable of floating small vessels like canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. This legislation, which clarifies hunting, fishing and boating rights on Georgia’s navigable streams, can be greatly strengthened by codifying this “right of passage.”

CLICK HERE to contact your state legislators and ask them to protect our freedom to float by amending HB 1172 to include language that states that public easements for the passage of boats exist on all Georgia streams capable of supporting passage. This action form is provided by Georgia River Network, who along with other groups American Whitewater is partnering with on this issue.

Ambrose Tuscano

Soda Springs, CA

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