Who Owns A River?

Posted January 27, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

Boaters in Colorado staged a protest recently in order to preserve their right to freely float down the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. A property owner alongside the river has filed a lawsuit against the recreation community, claiming that the public has no right to float by his property. He is basically claiming that the water running in front of his house belongs solely to him.

Sound familiar?

We find ourselves, once again, in a struggle over public water and property rights. Every other state has ruled in favor of boaters, as long as the water wasn’t wanted by cities and farms instead. I asked myself, as I read the article, what I truly thought was fair. It’s a worthy question for any Californian to ask, considering there are more claims on our state’s water than there is water to satisfy them. The battle has raged for years.

I am obviously biased. But I also studied economics for four years and have a healthy respect for the value of private property. So what, really, makes the most sense?

I find myself constantly returning to this principle upon which our beloved “social contract” is based: A person owns that to which he has applied work in order to either attain or manipulate, as long as this ownership does not aversely affect another’s property. This simple concept often seems to be completely ignored when dealing with water rights.

Tell me this: What happens when I set up a dam downstream from the valley where a farmer has some crops, and a rare bird species nests in the trees? Not to mention the fishermen and bears who catch the salmon who every year that travel upstream. And what about the vegetation downstream that counted on those fluctuating water levels after rains for a spring cleaning? I think we’ve all heard this before, and probably get the picture. If a river doesn’t fit the definition of a “public good”, I don’t know what does.

Starting with the Gold Rush in California, a man could all of a sudden determine the entire fate of a watershed should he be the first to settle the land near its source. Who cares what happens to those other people and habitats along the way. This contrasts to more sensible precedents set by the Spanish in which a man could utilize water which ran through his property as long as this use did not negatively affect water available to other land-owners down or upstream from him.

Although Spanish law still didn’t recognize the negative externalities associated with the environmental effects of human manipulation in general, it did at least recognize that you simply cannot change a river in one place without changing the entire watershed through which it flows.
So what makes sense? It seems to me that a stretch of river is not a resource that can be owned by one man without harming another person’s property. Nevermind the inherent value of wilderness that hardly figures in to the equation. Rivers are a public “good”, (to use political language) and as such should be protected and regulated by the government to which we trust our rights.

I hope that the attention brought by these dedicated boaters to this current debate in Colorado will amount to a recognition of the fact that no single man could ever hope to accurately value a river. There are too many people, habitats, and animals that all rely on it in amazingly complex ways. Rivers are owned by all of us, and should be protected with the vigor these boaters have portrayed. But that’s just my opinion.

Here’s the link to that article:

Boaters Float For Their Rights


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