Utah Public Waters Access Act “violates” Utah Constitution 4th District judge says; Utah Supreme Court stays ruling pending appeal
The issue of public access to waters in the state of Utah has become a hot-button issue in the Utah courts recently. As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the issue stems from a ruling from 4th District Judge Derek Pullan that held that “the ‘unfittingly named’ 2010 Utah Public Waters Access Act violates the Utah Constitution by denying the recreating public from a resource that the state must manage in the favor of all Utahns.”
Utah Public Waters Access Act
In 2010, the Utah legislature passed the Utah Public Waters Access Act, which governs access to “public water” in Utah. Under the Act, “[t]he public may use a public water for recreational activity if the public water is a navigable water or is on public property and the recreational activity is not otherwise prohibited by law.” The public’s access to “public water” on “private property” is treated differently under the statute. In relation to access to public water on private property, the statute states that “[a] person may access and use a public water on private property for any lawful purpose with the private property owner’s permission,” but “[a] person may not access or use a public water on private property for recreational purposes if the private property is property to which access is restricted, unless public recreational access is established….”
Under the Utah Public Waters Access Act, “public recreational access is established if the private property has been used by the public for recreational access requiring the use of the public water for a period of at least 10 consecutive years that begins after September 22, 1982; and the public use has been: continuous during the season conducive to the recreational access; open and notorious; adverse; and without interruption.” However, “[a] property owner’s overt act intended to interrupt uninvited recreational access is a sufficient interruption to restart any period of use that may have already begun.”
Utah Supreme Court Issues Statewide Stay
Following Judge Pullan’s decision, VR Associates (“VRA”), which “owns a luxury destination on a 4-mile stretch of the Provo River known as Victory Ranch” filed an appeal. A lawyer for VRA has said that Judge Pullan’s decision is “premised on various erroneous conclusions,” and that:
VRA, other private landowners, the state, and the recreating public are all harmed through a deprivation of their property rights, the right to the benefit of duly enacted legislation, and ambiguity as to the scope of the public’s rights.
Specifically, VRA contends that recreational use was not envisioned by the framers of the Utah Constitution when they described public easements to ensure access to water in the 1890s. Rather, VRA asserts that the framers of the Utah Constitution were thinking of irrigation or commerce as it relates to public easements to access public waters.
Without comment, the Utah Supreme Court granted VRA’s request for a stay of Judge Pullan’s ruling pending VRA’s appeal. The stay represents the first adverse ruling against the Utah Stream Access Coalition (“USAC”), a collation aimed at “promot[ing] and assist[ing] in all aspects of securing and maintaining public access to, and lawful use of, Utah’s public waters and streambeds,” in the nearly five years since the group began litigating against the Utah Public Waters Access Act.
In a blog on its website, the USAC said that, “Although we are disappointed by the court’s order, it is of the utmost importance that we follow it.” Even still, the Coalition reiterated:
We got through 5 years of restricted access to our rivers, and we can get through however many more it takes before the Utah Supreme Court rules on this issue. We remain confident in our legal arguments before the court, and we will continue to pursue all means possible to restore and preserve access to Utah’s public rivers and streams.
Even though USAC argued that Victory Ranch only had standing to seek a stay “that applies to its four miles on the Upper Provo above [the] Jordanelle Reservoir,” the Utah Supreme Court rejected that contention by issuing a statewide stay of Judge Pullan’s ruling. Thus, for now, the public’s access to waterways on private property is all but denied without the private landowners consent.
According to VRA’s court filings, the Public Waters Access Act “prohibited and criminalized virtually all forms of public access to and use of 2,700 miles of Utah’s fishable public water that traverse ostensibly private stream beds.” Judge Pullan’s ruling had concluded that the Act’s reach had gone too far, and that under the Act approximately 43% of the state’s fishable streams had been made off-limits to the public.
USAC Wins Related Suit on “Navigability” of Weber River
While the fate of the Utah Public Waters Access Act remains up in the air following the Supreme Court’s stay, just last year, USAC won a related lawsuit regarding the question of navigability on the Weber River. That ruling, stemming from the 3rd District, declared that streams are “public” if, at the time of Utah statehood in the 19th century, they were used seasonably to float logs. However, this ruling too has been appealed, and the Utah Supreme Court has consolidated any appeals associated with the navigability cases.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Issues Guidance for Anglers
In November 2015, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources issued guidance to anglers that were confused with the shifting rules. The guidance advised anglers to stick to beds of streams when crossing private lands and demonstrate respect to private landowners. According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the best practices are to access private streams only from public access points or after obtaining express consent from the private landowners to access the streams.
Utah Supreme Court’s Stay Not Having Intended Consequences?
While Judge Pullan’s decision has been stayed, many anglers appear to have ignored the stay. According to VRA, anglers showed up on its banks within days of Judge Pullan’s ruling and many “exceeded the bounds of what is explicitly permitted. This will likely continue until clarity is provided regarding the scope of the public’s easement,” VRA said in court filings. In VRA’s opinion:
The public has an interest in seeing laws enacted by its representative upheld and enforced. Similarly, private landowners — members of the public themselves — have an interest in assuring that the full scope of their constitutional rights are enforced, absent direction from the Supreme Court to the contrary.
Judge Pullan’s ruling creates an interesting question regarding the Utah Constitution, namely whether the framers of the Utah Constitution envisioned public use when they described public easements in the 1890s and whether restricting access to some 43% of Utah’s fishable streams goes too far. The ruling also raises questions related to private landowners and their rights in the face of the public’s access to the waterways of Utah for recreational purposes.