the upper altamaha initiative:
recreational river access in georgia and beyond
Matt Brown, Jon Penland, and Rachel Small
At the request of American Whitewater, our project will address the problem of restricted recreational access to Georgia's "non-navigable" rivers. Georgia's restrictive stream access statute and the cases that interpret it allow for public use of "navigable" rivers, but if the river does not meet the statutory definition of navigability, the laws effectively allow private landowners to barricade a river or sue recreational river users for trespass. In Georgia, private landowners can restrict or prevent the recreational use of a river if they own property on both sides of the river. In theory, Georgia law also allows landowners to band together to prohibit recreational use of the river. Furthermore, Georgia grants to owners of riparian land the right to exclude others, even on navigable rivers, down to the low-water mark, implying that river users have no right to portage.
These restrictive stream access laws are inconsonant with many states' view of their rivers as valuable natural assets to be held for the enjoyment of their citizens. We will draft a model stream access statute for Georgia for American Whitewater and other interested groups. We will explore, and incorporate into our model access statute materials as an addendum, the potential economic benefits to the surrounding communities of freer river access. We will explore the possibilities for providing tax incentives to landowners willing to give up one of the "sticks" of property rights in their streams, the right to exclude paddlers, i.e. conservation easements. Finally, the resources available to the public regarding river access laws are limited. While American Whitewater has a River Access Toolkit on its website, it is quite succinct and, thus, perhaps not as useful as it might be. Therefore, our group will expand on the River Access Toolkit entries for the states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, so that river users in the Southeastern US will have at their disposal a thorough and complete description of the river access issues in each state, including judicial decisions bearing on the issue.