Defining a Water Trail or Blueway

In recent years many organizations and agencies have been promoting the concept of water trails or blueways as a means to highlight the recreational benefits of rivers. Water trails are quite simply rivers that are used for navigation and recreation. While some water trails may be formalized, typically through a state or federal program, with developed facilities, interpretive information and maps, others are deep in the backcountry and may only be experienced by a handful of individuals.

More precisely, we define a water trail as any traditionally navigable waterway defined as having the capacity, in terms of length, width, and depth, to enable a kayak, canoe, or other type of craft to make successful progress through a waterway, regardless of the presence of shallow rapids, exposed cobble, or other objects that may impede passage. In practice water trails span a wide array of levels of challenge, from standing water to challenging whitewater.

Benefits of Developing a Formal Water Trail

While all rivers used for recreation are effectively water trails, a subset of rivers are appropriate for more formal designation by federal, state, or local jurisdictions. These water trails typically have web and/or printed guides that highlight legal and safe put-ins and take-outs, parking, restrooms and camping. In addition a local stewardship group often partners with a relevant agency on management and stewardship issues.

The following criteria can be used in considering whether to designate a formal water trail through a local, state, or federal water trail program:

  • Quality of the recreation experience,
  • Visitor demand or potential,
  • Presence of a grassroots constituency,
  • On-the-ground stakeholder willing to champion creation and/or management,
  • Documented problem and/or opportunity regarding public access including a need for coordination across agencies,
  • A need for education on water safety and resource stewardship.

Promoting Safety

Formalizing a water trail provides an opportunity to promote safe boating which can be especially important for rivers that flow through communities. In the community of Reno, NV for example regular river safety classes for youth are taught on the Truckee River.

The Forest Service Manual (2354.41b) addresses the manager's role in promoting water safety as advisory and informational and directs the manager to “provide opportunities for the river recreation user to become informed of current flows, equipment and experience minimums and hazards.” Most importantly the manual states that the “user must make the final decision about whether or not to engage in the recreation activity.” American Whitewater advocates this approach towards management of all water trails under local, state, or federal jurisdiction. By focusing on educating river users on conditions and hazards before they start on a trip, it is possible to provide individuals with the information they need to select river segments appropriate for their skill level.

Examples of Water Trails

  • Middle Fork Snoqualmie (WA) and Wilamette River (OR) are examples of water trail projects coordinated through the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance program. This program has the skills and expertise to assist local communities in formalizing water trails.
  • Tuckasegee River (NC), Feather River (CA), Deerfield River (MA), Catawba (SC) are all examples of rivers are in various stages of planning and implementing public access plans based on a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower licensing proceeding. American Whitewater represents recreational river users in these proceedings and takes advantage of provisions in the Federal Power Act that require equal consideration of power and non-power values. Through private-public collaborative settlement processes these plans are negotiated and carried out to restore and enhance public enjoyment of rivers impacted by hydropower dams. Oversight by a federal agency, involvement of community stakeholders, and private funding and flow regulation by the dam owner make these projects incredibly effective at providing public access. Given the involvement of recreational users of the river, agency planning staff (local, state, and federal), and a dedicated source of funding (mitigation associated with the hydropower project) opportunities exist to leverage these site-specific projects into an integrated water trail. An excellent example is the series of hydropower dams on the Wisconsin Rivers where operators have been required to provide portage routes and address recreational user needs so facilitate travel along this water trail through central Wisconsin.
  • Gauley River (WV), New River (WV), Rivers of Adirondack Park (NY), Klamath (CA/OR), Snake River (WY). These rivers are all actively managed by state and federal agencies to provide public access through a mixed public-private river corridor. Rivers such as these with a state or federal manager are ripe for partnerships and large scale initiatives.
  • Watauga (NC), Johns Creek (VA), Blackwater (WV), Elkhorn (KY): American Whitewater owns and operates public river access areas on these rivers. State or Federal partnerships could increase the quality and connectivity of these and similar river access opportunities.
  • River restoration efforts provide opportunities to reconnect communities to rivers and also educate the public on the ecological and recreational benefits of restored rivers. A dam removal on the Sandy River, OR led to formalizing the Sandy River Water Trail through a partnership with Oregon State Parks, the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, and the local community.
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