Finding New Ways To Access Your River

Middle Fork, American River, CA | Daniel Nylen

Middle Fork, American River, CA | Daniel Nylen

Did you know that, at least in California, any time a new bridge is built or an old one replaced, the overseeing governmental agency is obligated to conduct a study on the feasibility of providing public access to the river? No? Well neither did we!

It wasn’t until last year that a concerned citizen and river recreationist, upon seeing a new bridge project get under way in his “backyard,” dug through California’s Streets and Highway Code and discovered a hidden gem. Realizing the importance, he promptly shared the finding with American Rivers and American Whitewater, our partner organization on this project:

Streets and Highways Code – SHC
DIVISION 1. STATE HIGHWAYS [50. – 897.]  ( Division 1 enacted by Stats. 1935, Ch. 29. )
CHAPTER 1. Administration [50. – 227.1.]  ( Chapter 1 enacted by Stats. 1935, Ch. 29. )

ARTICLE 2. California Transportation Commission [70. – 86.]  ( Heading of Article 2 amended by Stats. 1991, Ch. 928, Sec. 11. )

84.5. During the design hearing process relating to state highway projects that include the construction by the department of a new bridge across a navigable river, there shall be included full consideration of, and a report on, the feasibility of providing a means of public access to the navigable river for public recreational purposes.

Superficially, it sounds like a relatively minor thing, but let me explain why it is kind of a big deal in case it’s not already obvious. Bridge sites are critical access points for river recreationists of all types, be you a boater, angler, walker, and anything in between.

Why? Waterways are meant to be enjoyed by all, but often the constraints of contiguous private land ownership restrict public access completely. However, the relevant department of transportation possesses at least a narrow right-of-way around the bridge to allow for construction and maintenance activities.

Once you get to the river, Navigable Servitude gives the public the right to enjoy the river and its riparian area up to the high water mark. These narrow bridge right-of-ways often allow for legal public access to the river.

Oftentimes, however, this access is sketchy at best– many private land owners believe they own the land right up to the highway, there is often no good spot to park, and the access can be difficult (especially when trying to carry a boat down steep embankments) and even dangerous when you factor in high-speed traffic and agro landowners, among other hazards.

This new-found bit of highway code mandates a study on the feasibility of providing public river access. With a friendly reminder and prompting, Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) performed its first such study on the SR-99 highway crossing of the Feather River.

We at American Rivers and American Whitewater found this first study [PDF] to be generally inadequate and in dire need of improvement. To Caltrans’ credit, it was performed well after construction had already started- much later in the process than intended- and was the first one ever performed (despite the code being in place for some forty odd years).

We have since provided guidelines to Caltrans describing how we feel these access feasibility studies should be conducted and what content they should include. Caltrans managers have been very receptive and appreciative of our input, and we are currently working closely with them to fine tune some aspects of these studies.

We are planning to work cooperatively with Caltrans to have an upcoming bridge replacement project, the Highway 49 crossing of the South Fork of the American River in Coloma, be the focus of a thorough and sound study that can serve as the blueprint for all future access feasibility studies. This stretch of the South Fork is one of the most popular boating routes in California, and the bridge site is already an unofficial access point.

We feel that a proper study will ultimately lead to the development of a formal river access point, benefitting local communities and river recreationists alike. This represents a significant step toward creating new, safe, environmentally-sound, formal river access points throughout the state, and provides a key building block for the creation of new Blue Trails. Needless to say, we’re excited about these developments!

  • Does your department of transportation, be it city, county, or state, have similar regulations or policies?
  • If you’re in California, do you know of any new bridge projects going on in your area? Let us know!