The Dolores is a navigable river


This is a letter about the letter of Leslie and Cliff Stewart calling for users of the Dolores River to respect private property rights.

Mr. and Ms. Stewart are mistaken in applying People v. Emmert, 1983 Colo. 137, 597 P. 2d 1025 (Colo. 1979) and Colo. Rev. Stat 18-4-504.5 (1998) to the Dolores River. Under federal law, the Dolores River is a “navigable river.” Consequently, the rights of private property owners end at the “median high water mark” (roughly the edge of the flood plain).

The State of Colorado does not have the authority to determine which rivers are navigable and which are not navigable. Only the United States district courts (federal courts) and the United States Supreme Court can make a determination whether a river is navigable or not navigable. This is known as “admiralty jurisdiction.” State courts do not have any “admiralty jurisdiction.” Rivers that are not navigable may be owned privately. Rivers that are navigable, however, such as the Dolores River, are not owned by anyone and can never be owned by anyone.

Navigable rivers are “attributes of sovereignty” like airspace, or interstate highways, or seashores out to the three mile limit. They can’t be sold to private persons and the state can’t even give them away to private persons.

I agree that anyone using the Dolores River needs to respect the rights of property owners along the riverbanks. However, users of the Dolores River may use it (including the riverbottom) as long as they do not go up the banks of the river past the median high water mark. People who own property along the Dolores River (and the Colorado River and the Arkansas River and the North and South Platte Rivers) do not have any private ownership over the river itself.

Jim Preston