The Utah Supreme Court doesn't expect Utahns to walk on water.
In a ruling issued Friday, the justices said that people using Utah's rivers and lakes can touch and walk on the water's bed, even if that bed is considered private property.
The opinion comes out of a trespassing case involving a group that floated down a section of the Weber River on a rubber raft in 2000.
According to the ruling, Jodi Conatser, Kevin Conatser and Lacey Conatser entered the Weber River at a public access point and began floating downriver in June 2000.
The family members were also fishing when they encountered a fence strung across the river by property owners Wayne Johnson and Duane Johnson.
As they had done on at least two occasions, the Conatsers touched the river's bottom to fish and to also move the fence. The Johnsons ordered the rafters out of the river and told them to pick up their raft and carry it via a parallel railroad easement. The Conatsers refused and were later met downstream by a Morgan County deputy sheriff, who cited them for criminal trespass.
The Conatsers were found guilty by the Morgan County Justice Court and the family appealed.
The state dismissed the charge because there was uncertainty in the law.
During a drawn-out legal process, the Conatsers also filed suit against the Johnsons, seeking a judicial determination of their rights.
Second District Judge Michael Lyon ruled against the Conatsers, saying they were only entitled to touch the river's bottom on incidental occasions as part of floating on top of the water, but nothing more.
In Friday's ruling, the justices said Lyon incorrectly interpreted the scope of the public's easement in state waters. Under Utah law, state waters are owned by the public, which has an easement to those waters, even if the water's bed is privately owned.
"The public has a right to float, hunt, fish, and participate in all lawful activities that utilize state waters," the ruling states. "The practical reality is that the public cannot effectively enjoy its right to 'utilize' the water to engage in recreational activities without touching the water's bed."The justices did note the public's right to walk on a water bed is protected as long as people "do so reasonably and cause no unnecessary injury to the landowner."
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