Recreationalists who enjoy Utah’s waters gathered on the steps of the Utah State Capitol Tuesday calling for compromise in a long-fought battle over stream access rights.
"What do we want?" shouted Bert Ley, appropriately wearing fishing waders. "Compromise," the 400 or so people chanted.
"When do we want it?"
Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, sponsor of HB37, "The Public Waters Access Act," told crowd members their presence made a difference. He implored them to climb the steps, enter the building and explain their support for the bill personally to their representative.
HB37 is based on a standard for public access to streams and rivers that Idaho has been successfully using for nearly four decades. The threshold is whether a stream is large enough to float a log six feet in length and six inches in diameter. Smaller streams remain off limits for public access.
Garth Pellett of Sandy waved a sign in support of HB37 during the rally.
"This is an issue I believe in; for our children and ourselves," he said. "This is a compromise bill. It respects landowner rights and the public should respect landowner rights, but landowners should respect the rights of the public and that is what HB37 does."
The stream access debate has been going on for decades. But it picked up steam when the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the public owns the water in rivers and streams, and had a right to use the waters on stream beds where public access was possible.
A bill passed in 2010 undermined the court decision and, according to the Utah Stream Access Coalition (USAC), prevented the public from utilizing 2,700 miles of rivers and streams.
The group eventually filed two lawsuits against the state regarding the law. Decisions on those suits are pending.
USAC officials say they will dismiss the suits if HB37 passes and is signed by the governor. Some legislators are calling that blackmail. Kris Olson, president of USAC, disagrees.
"We are offering an opportunity to seek middle ground and put an issue to bed once and for all," Olson told the crowd. "We are following our own legal rights to challenge a law when our constitutional rights are being taken away. That is not extortion; that is our legal process."
Meanwhile, an opposing bill from Rep. Kay McKiff, R-Richfield, has also been introduced at the 2014 Legislature. It would keep stream beds closed to the public. HB233 or "Public Trust Obligations and Water Rights," like HB37, remains in the Rules Committee.
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