Raft bill sinks in legislature

Not only would river rafting outfitters have earned the right to float through private land, but everyone else would have, too.

That’s partly why the Colorado Senate on Friday turned House Bill 1188 into a study of the issue, one that will be done by the Colorado Water Congress, a private group that focuses on water issues primarily for agriculture and municipal drinking water, and not recreation or tourism.

The controversial measure, introduced by unaffiliated Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, pitted the rights of recreationists with property owners, who say it constitutes an unfair taking of their land.

Currently, an uneasy truce exists between rafting proponents and private landowners, a truce that some say was broken recently when a Gunnison County landowner filed a trespassing lawsuit against an outfitter on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River that forced it to go out of business.

As a result, rafting companies from around the state sought a new law, HB 1188, that would allow them to traverse private land, and make it clear what rights both sides should have. That measure passed the House last month 40-25.

But Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, on Friday persuaded enough senators, including at least six Democrats, to turn the measure into a study of the issue, something Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and other proponents said was useless because the matter has been a subject of debate for decades.

“If you talk to both the proponents and opponents and most people in our districts, they will agree with two things: that our rivers should be able to be rafted and that private property should be protected,” Carroll said. “Ambiguity here is not good for the property owners, and it’s not good for the rafters. Ambiguity here is just litigation, and litigation in this area leaves case by case in uncertainty. How does that help anyone?”

Under the measure, rafters would be allowed to traverse private land without permission, but would be restricted from touching the banks unless necessary for safety reasons or to get around an obstruction.

Some senators questioned the wisdom of sending the issue to the Colorado Water Congress, but Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, said it would get a fair hearing there.

“There are problems with the bill ... in regards to water-rights development in the future,” said Whitehead, who opposed the bill. “The way the bill is currently drafted, it could prohibit future appropriations on these rivers that will be our future supplies in this state. Having a study period ... is an appropriate way to go.”

Only one Republican voted for the bill and against studying it. Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said it was a fair, bipartisan compromise that should go forward.

“Instead, we are facing ... another blue-ribbon study instead of actually solving problems for people in Colorado,” he said.

The bill requires a final Senate vote, which could come as early as Monday. If approved, it would head back to the House.

Curry said she’s not sure whether she’ll allow the bill to remain a study, or fight to get it back to its original form. She did say several supporters of the measure are considering taking the issue to the ballot during this fall’s general election if the Legislature doesn’t approve it as originally written.


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