river rights

I got a 186 dollar ticket for trespassing? on the shore of Blackhawk River Runs just south of Sauk City! I’m am sure I was no where near the “typical high water mark”, yet the cop was unimpressed with my knowledge of federal law. Does anyone have information on cases won in this regard?



Not 100% sure
But I do believe states’ rights trump federal law in the case of rivers. Colorado comes to mind, where there is a big push to declare the river bottom, and therefore the river, private property. New York has case law that says that “navigable” is determined by what a whitewater kayak can run.

I know for a fact that in salt water, the states set the demarcation between public and private property. Examples are Maine and Massachusetts, who have laws stating that the LOW tide mark is the boundary.

And in my home state of Connecticut, the law says mean high water/tide, but it is enforced otherwise if the landowner has $$$$$.

So I don’t think federal law, if there is one in this case, will be upheld in most states. Even if you were to pursue the case, it would cost you more in legal fees to win than it would to pay the fine and get on with your life. The officer and their jurisdiction are likely counting on that fact.

Not sure
But I believe this is governed primarily by state law, and state law varies widely on issues of water access and and shoreline “property.”

That sucks to be ticketed. I’d do some research on state law. You might be screwed.

Not a clue, but…
Does it work like a speeding ticket where if you contest it in court, the officer has to show up? If you can simply pay the court fees to contest, show some photo-documentation, and the state law to back up your claim, you might get off.

What’s the factual background?
Not that it likely changes much, but we’re curious how you got the ticket for trespassing.

Are they joking?
You are right; the cop is wrong. Here’s a short legal summary:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that rivers that are navigable, for title purposes, are owned by the states, “held in trust” for the public. This applies in all fifty states, under the “Equal Footing Doctrine.”

Rivers that do meet the federal test are automatically navigable, and therefore owned by the state. No court or government agency has to designate them as such.

The federal test of navigability is not a technical test. There are no measurements of river width, depth, flow, or steepness involved. The test is simply whether the river is usable as a route by the public, even in small craft such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts.

The states own these rivers up to the “ordinary high water mark.” This is the mark that people can actually see on the ground, where the high water has left debris, sand, and gravel during its ordinary annual cycle. (Not during unusual flooding.) It is not a theoretical line requiring engineering calculations. Where the river banks are fairly flat, this mark can be quite a distance from the edge of the water during medium water flows. There is often plenty of room for standing, fishing, camping, and other visits.

States cannot sell or give away these rivers and lands up to the ordinary high water mark. Under the “Public Trust Doctrine,” they must hold them in perpetuity for public use.

The three public uses that the courts have traditionally mentioned are navigation, fishing, and commerce. But the courts have ruled that any and all non-destructive activities on these land are legally protected, including picnics, camping, walking, and other activities. The public can fish, from the river or from the shore below the “ordinary high water mark.” (Note that the fish and wildlife are owned by the state in any case.) The public can walk, roll a baby carriage, and other activities, according to court decisions.

States do have authority and latitude in the way they manage rivers, but their management must protect the public uses mentioned above. They can (and must) prohibit or restrict activities that conflict with the Public Trust Doctrine.

“Responsible recreation” must be allowed, but activities that could be harmful, such as building fires, leaving trash, and making noise, can legally be limited, or prohibited, in various areas. Motorized trips and commercial trips can legally be limited or prohibited by state governments.

State and local restrictions on use of navigable rivers have to be legitimately related to enhancing public trust value, not reducing it. Rivers cannot be closed or partially closed to appease adjacent landowners, or to appease people who want to dedicate the river to fishing only, or to make life easier for local law enforcement agencies.”

Federal law in this case supercedes state or county law, so no local jurisdiction can suddenly restrict access on navigable waters. (see http://www.nationalrivers.org/states/wi-law.htm)

The place you’re talking about is part of the Lower WIsconsin Riverway, Wisconsin’s most popular free-flowing river for canoeing.

Try calling Steve Colden, Department of Natural Resources Riverway Manager, at (608) 935-1914. He might be able to give you some insights into what exactly is public access down there. Or email Mark Cupp, Executive Director, Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, e-mail: mark.cupp@lwr.state.wi.us

The Wisconsin River Alliance might also be willing to help you, since they’ve done an enormous amount to protect the river and public access: http://www.wisconsinrivers.org

If you were behaving well (ie, no littering, rowdiness, etc), this is worth contesting, since if we don’t constantly defend our public rights to river access, those rights won’t be enforced.

The rest of the story ?
What exactly is Blackhawk River Runs?

What type of cop ticketed you for trespass?

A conservation agent? City cop?

More info…


I’m not a lawyer, but:

– Last Updated: Jul-13-07 9:48 AM EST –

This may shed some light:


This is more specific to Wisconsin:


Here's an excerpt from the above link:

Reasonable Use, The Public trust, and Piers that do not need permits
The public trust doctrine represents a significant framework for the protection of Wisconsin's aquatic resources. The doctrine maintains that the state holds navigable waters and the beds of natural lakes in trust for the public in the interests of protecting water quality, fish and habitat, recreation, natural scenic beauty and other resource values. Consistent with this doctrine, state law prohibits the placement of any structure or material on the bed of any navigable water without a permit (§ 30.12 Wis. Stats.). A pier falls under the broad category of "structure"; thus the placement of a pier on the bed of a navigable waterway is prohibited. However, sections 30.12 and 30.13 of the state statutes have carved out an exception to this prohibition when the proposed pier does not harm the public interest. If a pier clearly satisfies the conditions set forth below, a permit does not need to be obtained from the DNR. (§30.13(l) Wis. Stats.). These statutes effectively balance a riparian's right to place a pier with the public's interest in protecting natural scenic beauty, good water quality, navigation and other values. These standards have also been codified in §§ NR 326.04 and 326.05 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.

Assuming you're giving us the straight skinny, it looks like you were in the right, as long as you didn't land on the property, or stand on the bottomlands underneath the water if it belonged to a property owner.

Here in MI, on property surrounding a natural lake (privately man-made lakes are completely private), those properties extend their lines in a "pie-shaped" fashion to the center of the lake where all the lines meet. So the property owners own the bottomland but the water is public, s if you stay in your boat, you're in the clear.

Recently in MI some greedy bastards pressed to have riparian law and navigation rights changed because they wanted to stop beachcombers from walking the great lakes shores, even when following the "keep your feet wet" law - which seems to be a bit inaccurate depending on what state you live in and what legal firm you listen to. Fortunately it was defeated.

I personally think people should have the right to walk the shores of the oceans and great lakes as long as your feet are below the normal water level.

This should be an important issue here. At the least, navigational rights should be indisputable and if you win your case it should be made very public so that law enforcement knows the rules they're supposed to be enforcing.

river rights
First what happened to you really sucks, especially if there was no prior notice. As a practical matter, most river rights are a product of state law as interpreted by local authority, e.g. the county sheriff. It varies widely from one county to the next across the U.S. I know one can read all the websites and study US Supreme Court rulings, but if the local sheriff is interpreting the law a certain way ( probably for a large landowner) the only way to challenge is through a long costly court case. Even then it can start hinging on specific facts on this particular venue. Additionally, these cases are very complex and require a really experienced property attorney. So, until someone comes along with the deep pockets and time ( could be years) it might be best to avoid future tickets, which must be paid to avoid prosecution. Sorry to be cynical but that’s the way I’ve seen it happen.


Happy those people lost their case
What creeps!

They moved up there and thought their money made them special. Their behavior made them unwelcome and most folks in the nearby county seat, I’m sure, are glad those wealthy newcomers lost their case.

The beaches there are not overflowing with tourists.

However, tourism is a major area industry there. The tourists and normal summer people don’t arrive in Gucci gear and Monolos and no one would be impressed if they did.

Black Hawk is a canoe livery
on the banks of the river…

If I’m not mistaken, he has a spot of sand along the river, a small office / mobile home, and there is a public access / boat launch right next to it. First, you were on private property … did Randy (I think that’s his name) complain and call the cops? Why would a cop write a ticket before informing you that you were on private property, and that if you were to move 50 feet upriver you would be on public?

Ugh. that sucks so bad.

PJC, where are you?? Can you shed some light on this? Isn’t this where we used to launch almost every week, without any problem?


You are right, Tracy
That’s why I think there must be more to the story.

It is obvious that there is more
to the story, or you were paddling through a top secret government installation in which case “the uncle” is never wrong!



Two times when you have no rights,
no matter what the law says, on a river. First, when a law enforcement officer tells you to move on. Second, when a property owner points a firearm at your. At least with the first, if he tickets or jails you, there is recourse.

Here in Florida
everything below the mean high water line is public property. There are exceptions, however. Some notable springs, such as the Wakulla, Ginnie, Silver, etc. where ‘grandfathered’ in, in spite the fact they’re both navigable. I guess they were in business before the law was inacted.

I’ve ticked off more than one property owner when I’ve called their bluff. I had one call the law but when the deputy (one of many I know in the area) arrived he told the property owner I was within my legal rights. The owner mentioned I had to step onto his property to get my canoe and gear across his fence since the fence also crossed the creek. The deputy informed him he could either let me cross his fence on land or risk me being injured trying to get through his fence in the water and have his ass sued for personal injuries since it’s illegal to block a navigable waterway. The owner was really miffed over the situation, the deputy wasn’t happy being called out just to deal with a supposed trespasser, and I left the area after the deputy and I had a talk about my rights, pissin’ off a property owner, and not rockin’ the boat (no pun intended). Good thing the deputy is an occasional fishin’ and paddlin’ buddy or the situation could’ve been unfavorable for me. Less than three weeks later him and I were fishin’ a ‘private’ lake connected to a navigable creek. The property owner came out to give us a hard time, threatening to call the law but as soon as Keith flashed his badge the situation settled down real quick. Good thing he didn’t ask Keith what he was doing with wire-cutters in his tackle box. Sometimes it’s who you know…