Rivers and Streams – Public or Private?
When the weather warms and we become entrenched in our beautiful spring season many Hoosiers gravitate to rivers and streams for a variety of recreational opportunities - and with good reason. Think I’m kidding, just drive by almost any bridge or public access site on a beautiful spring day.
Indiana’s moving waters are also an important part of the geography and natural history of our state. Whether fishing, canoeing, kayaking or floating in a tube our flowing waterways can provide some of our greatest enjoyment. However, in some cases it can also translate into trespass problems and as responsible users of our natural resources we should always be respectful of our environment as well as private property.
In no way do I want to diminish the value of our beautiful lakes and reservoirs, but for many, another quality outdoor experience most often comes from our rivers and streams. Unfortunately, enjoying them can also bring up problems with riparian landowners. I have written on this several years back but recent discussions merit revisiting.
Over the past several weeks I have been involved in conversations regarding the legality of using our rivers and creeks, which seems to happen every year during our summer months. For example, just the other day a friend asked “Can someone tell me I was trespassing and ask me to leave even though I was standing in the middle of the creek and not on his land?” The short answer to his question, considering his location, was yes, he was standing on private property.
In Indiana those who own land adjacent to “non-navigable” rivers and streams actually own the land under the stream, yet the water and everything in it is public. So if you float through without touching the bank or bottom you are not violating any rules. Step out of your boat and by the letter of the law you are trespassing. Remember, the key word is non-navigable. Now, there is another important criterion for measuring legal access of streams and river beds and it centers on “navigability.” If the waterway is considered navigable then the state not only owns the water but the ground beneath it, all the way to the so called “high-water” line, which means it is indeed public. So, your next question is obviously “what streams are considered navigable?”
In the late 1980’s Steve Lucas, director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Commission’s division of hearings took the daunting task of determining which streams and rivers were considered navigable. Incidentally, navigability is largely dependent on whether moving waterways were used as a corridor for transportation, trade or commerce during the time Indiana gained statehood back in 1816.
To accomplish this, Lucas enlisted the help of conservation officers in all of Indiana’s 92 counties and support from the DNR’s other divisions. The results of several years’ worth of research were made available in 1990 which addressed many aspects of private ownership as related to stream and river beds. Even to date, this document still changes from time to time.
One thing unusual was the fact that several small streams (some not much wider than a drainage ditch) were listed as navigable but our local Wildcat Creek is not. This is something I personally do not understand because historical accounts prove our area’s early residents utilized the Wildcat as an important means of transportation and commerce.
Even though years of diligent work went in to providing this compilation of important information, some ambiguities still exist. The answer though remains fairly simple for those who use our many rivers and streams. We must be willing, if not eager, to recognize and respect all lands, especially those that fall under private ownership, whether we agree with it or not.