Colorado Supreme Court ends long river access dispute by ruling fisherman has no standing in right-to-wade argument

Roger Hill sued a landowner, arguing that the Arkansas River was navigable at statehood in 1876 and the riverbed is public property open for wading anglers

When a landowner hurled rocks at Roger Hill for wading and fishing in the Arkansas River, the octogenarian angler sued, arguing the river was navigable when Colorado became a state in 1876 and therefore public property and open for wading and fishing. The lawsuit threatened to upend decades of tenuous agreements around public access on the state’s rivers and streams.

The Colorado Supreme Court this week told Hill to stow his waders. The state’s highest court on Monday ruled Hill had no legal standing to argue the state’s rivers were public property if they were navigated for commerce in 1876. 

Hill’s case produced hundreds of pages of briefings in the Colorado Supreme Court, with the Colorado Attorney General, recreational user groups, landowner advocates, environmental lawyers and state water guardians all wading in with perspectives on Colorado’s murky public access rules around rivers. 

Those groups charged their arguments with perspectives on the public trust doctrine: The public has rights to natural resources including “air, running water, the sea and its shore.” And the equal footing doctrine: That states joining the United States of America gained title to riverbeds in waterways that were navigable. And the state argued that lawmakers, not a solitary angler, should be in charge of deciding access to rivers. 

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