It will come as no surprise to Virginia paddlers that their state’s river access laws are among the least boater-friendly in the Nation. Along with Colorado and Georgia, Virginia’s laws are rare in that they allow private landowners to prevent paddlers from using many rivers and creeks throughout the state. Rivers like John’s Creek have been deadlocked in debate for years, and remain in legal limbo. Elsewhere in the state, paddlers have been escorted off rivers, and access has been blocked.
While this may sound like a dire situation, Virginia is not a lost cause. Virginia’s neighbors all have superior, more nationally consistent river access laws, and many of them are reaping the benefits of river recreation. West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland all have local bustling river-based economies. These states also support use of all types of rivers by the public, which significantly adds to the quality of life of residents, public health, and the societal value of healthy rivers.
These benefits of accessible rivers have not gone unnoticed by Virginia state and local governments. Small communities are beginning to dedicate water trails on scenic rivers that flow through their areas. Franklin County, VA is among the most recent to create a publicly accessible “blueway,” which is located on the Pigg River. The State’s webpage itself urges visitors to “Dip your oars into more than 25,000 miles of Virginia’s rivers and streams that meander through some of the most beautiful country in the world.” They also offer service for rafting as well as canoeing and kayaking on their website.
Other states have formally recognized the societal value of public access to river, and have formally supported recreational paddling through a variety of strategies. The question is: Is Virginia ready to formally support public use of rivers, or are they content to let river-based tourism and recreation be something only their neighbors can offer?
American Whitewater has carried out numerous efforts to improve access to Virginia's streams. In one case we bought a takeout - to John's Creek - only to have a landowner threaten to charge any paddler to float down the Creek with trespassing. Currently we are working with the paddling community to advocate for stream access on a statewide level.
Virginia officials have confirmed that they consider Johns Creek and several other whitewater streams navigable and public unless proven otherwise. This is a common sense approach that respects the rights of citizens that own property adjacent to rivers, as well those who wish to rightfully enjoy those public rivers and streams. Legal challenges are possible though, and we encourage caution, discretion, and respect within the paddling community as this exciting development plays out.
If you want to help improve the stream access situation in Virginia, here is your chance! Virginia Senator David W. Marsden (D) has introduced a stream access bill, SB 629, with broad support from the paddling community. Call or email the Senators on the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources as soon as possible. This bill could see a hearing as soon as Thursday of this week (1/23), so time is of the essence.
Yesterday a landmark stream recreation bill for the commonwealth of Virginia was reported out of subcommittee and will now go to the full Senate for a vote. The vote could come as early as next week, and supportive paddlers are encouraged to call their Senators as soon as possible. This is the closest the public has come to gaining clarity on our rights to float down Virginia's rivers in a very long time.
The lack of clarity regarding the rights of residents and visitors to paddle Virginia's certain rivers and streams has long been an unnecessary source of conflict. Virginians are now ready to change that by clarifying that in Virginia people have the widely supported right to float down rivers. Thanks to this grassroots effort, a new stream access bill has recently been introduced in the state legislature that needs your support.
River enthusiasts in Virginia, including American Whitewater, are circulating the below petition to raise support for legislation clarifying that paddling is fully supported by the State of Virginia. Join us by signing this petition!
The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.