OLYMPIA – Following backlash from state agencies and outdoor enthusiasts, a Benton County lawmaker is shrinking the scope of a bill that could cut access to Washington’s lakes, rivers and streams.
The bill aims to alleviate a parking problem along the Yakima River, but opponents worried it would hinder public water access statewide. It could result in a misdemeanor for someone who uses public land to access a public body of water.
“The problem is mainly with Benton County and certain access to the Yakima River,” said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland.
Haler, the bill’s only sponsor, cited a case in which kayakers regularly damage a family home beside the river. He said the county requested the bill after visitors ignored “no parking” signs in the area and police couldn’t enforce the issue.
Haler’s staff is rewriting the bill to apply only in that area, although he suspects there are similar problems across the state. The original version got a hearing before the House State Government Committee on Jan. 20, but the committee never passed it to the House floor.
Laura Merrill of the Washington State Association of Counties told the committee the proposed law is unenforceable and could result in new problems across the state: “I do understand there’s a severe issue with this specific situation, but this fix will not work statewide.”
As it’s currently written, the bill would require cities and counties to provide “adequate parking” on certain pieces of land – or post signs warning it’s a crime to access water there. The law would apply on public lands that are smaller than a quarter square mile and beside bodies of water.
“To use parking as a criteria to shut access down is incorrect,” said Jerry White Jr., of the Spokane Riverkeeper program, who urged representatives to oppose the bill.
White said it’s problematic to deem a parking situation “adequate” or “inadequate,” noting that the volume of visitors in an area will fluctuate throughout the year. He said local governments should deal with problems on a case-by-case basis, always working to promote – not restrict – access to natural resources.
Other groups that testified in opposition include Washington State Parks, the Washington Public Ports Association and the Department of Natural Resources.
Spokane-area paddling and rafting enthusiasts were unenthused about the legislation.
“This bill is an overreaction to an isolated occurrence that could lock boaters and anglers from accessing places they utilize across the state,” said Rick Eichstaedt, a rafter and director of the Center for Justice. “Trespass on private land and damaging a private home is already illegal. Law enforcement does not need another tool to address what’s happening along the Yakima River.”
“Most of the places I access rivers are in remote locations and we park out of the way not causing hazard to others traveling the road,” said Celene Olgeirsson, a kayaker and member of the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club. She said a bill such as Haler’s “would have a disastrous effect for all river recreation,” including fishing.
A hearing date for the revised bill has not been set.
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