Beyond Access: Why Private River Bottoms Are a Conservation Catastrophe

4 years ago

 Written by Zach Lazzari

The day began wonderfully, my first guided trip although I myself had been a guide for 3 seasons. One of my favorite clients offered an open seat on a guided float down the Rio Grande River near Creede, Colorado. A reward after a great week of stalking healthy, wild fish on public walk wade stretches in the San Juan Mountains.

Upper Rio GrandeWe made the short drive and stood at the launch, twiddling our thumbs while the guide prepped his boat, rigged rods and tied on flies. He gave us the safety speech, we hopped in and got down to business. I hadn't fully realized why people bothered hiring myself or any other guide until that moment. All I had to do was fish while he handled the boat and logistics. He even let me steal his flies despite my obvious pack full of great patterns. Not a bad deal.

The first few miles were littered with boulders and great pocket water. The guide worked hard dodging rocks while I chucked streamers off the stern and he instructed Andy with a dry-dropper on the bow. We were both catching beautiful, wild fish at a comfortable pace. We hit a few nice eddies before making a lunch stop where the guide had special permission to drop his anchor. Up until lunch, we had no legal opportunity to stop and get out of the boat. Not even if we had stayed inside the high water mark.

After lunch the river gradient settled into a meandering pattern with undercut banks, overhanging willows and beautiful seams. We saw a few Green Drakes and caught some quality browns and rainbows on the dry. I had fished a huge chunk of the water in southern Colorado but had yet to touch this piece. It was quickly becoming a favorite, somewhere I planned on returning despite the long stretches of private land.

Then it happened. I heard the enthusiasm suck right out of the guide's mouth and he started going through the motions. Moments later, we hit a long stretch of “river improvements”. Like most of the private land river improvements, these were a succession of “V” shaped rock/cement structures, much like you would find in a kayak park. Each had a central current with an eddy on either side.

“Cast here, cast there....” I knew the tone. The “I hate this stretch of water and could care less if we touch a fish here” was thick on his breath.

After 3 years in Colorado, I was not surprised but it really put a damper on the day. Our guide, being courteous to the touchy subject and controversial nature of private river laws in Colorado, kept his mouth shut. Not knowing the stance of our mutual client in the front, I tried to do the same.

Eventually, I broke the silence with a mumbling “Fuck, I can't stand these stupid structures.” The guide, trying to remain courteous, leaned back and said, “This was the best piece of water on the Rio. Two years ago, they put in the structures and started feeding pellets. It has gone to complete shit.” Andy either didn't hear us or simply decided to remain neutral and out of the conversation.


Pellet Fed Fish

Unfortunately, this scenario is far from uncommon. In Colorado, it is more of the rule than the exception on private waters. I have worked these waters, targeting pellet fed, artificial “trophy trout”. In Colorado, I called it the Texas model of fishing because a large number of the landowners are wealthy Texans but the scenario plays out in Utah, Pennsylvania and numerous other states.

Ultimately, these landowners are manipulating the ecosystem for the sole purpose of hero shots with pet trout. Why anyone would make a conscious decision to catch hatchery trout over wild trout is beyond reason. 

How does all of this come about? How do these landowners acquire the permits to alter the course of the river?

In multiple states, they have legal ownership of the river bottom. That provides a good starting point for the first step. The, “this is my river” mentality.

Step two comes in the form of an environmental assessment. Private biologists and ecologists are hired via environmental firms. The landowner communicates the desire to “improve the river” and the firms do an assessment. Did this land historically carry cattle? There you have it, the bankside vegetation is degraded and erosion is an issue. Based on this assessment, the permit for improvements is granted by the state. And everyone collects a nice fee. The permit is often hung on an obscure office wall, signifying it's indignant lack of actual importance. Much like a Harvard law degree on the wall of a janitorial closet.

Step three comes in the form of the actual improvements. A contractor is hired and the work begins. They follow a set of standards to mitigate the erosion and maintain water quality standards during the construction phase. Unfortunately, only a few specialized river habitat contractors actually work to restore the ecosystem with scattered boulders, undercut banks, log jams and a natural course for the flow of water.

In most cases, the contractor funnels the water into the straight “V” line drop chutes. While this creates oxygen and the beloved eddies, it chokes the river into a direct path and prevents the natural movement of current and depositing of sediment.

Many of these landowners will establish electronic feeding stations on each eddy to ensure a steady supply of food keeps their pets fat, happy and loyal to the location. You can view this scenario from the roadside on the Frying Pan River. In some of the more isolated cases, I was actually paid to feed by hand on a daily basis.

The bottom line here is the blatant reality that the privatization of river beds is an environmental catastrophe. It isolates the public along with the public agencies, creating an “Us versus Them” mentality while providing the opportunity to destroy a healthy stretch of wild trout laden water for the sake of selfish, ignorant intent.

The focus in the battle for public rights is generally drawn to access and the right to recreate on water as it flows in a natural course. While access is a fight well worth worth making, the largely overlooked conservation errors as a result of private river bottoms are something to bring into the public view because they are destroying some of the best waters in the country. 




Zach is a freelance writer, photographer and fly fishing guide from Missoula, Montana. He spends his winters guiding in Patagonia and is a featured contributor on FlyBox's Journal. 


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