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Table of contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | References | Questionnaire | Interview A | Interview B | Interview C | Interview D | Interview E | Interview

Utilizing Irrigation Canals in Northern Utah for Recreational Trail Use: An Evaluation of Issues and Concerns

by James G. Carlson - Copyright James G. Carlson 2000 - All Rights Reserved
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY, Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Logan, Utah, 2000  



“When we lose our ability to contact the common species…the ordinary everyday species in our immediate vicinity, they might as well be extinct, in one sense…These humble little places where a kid can still go and not do damage, can have an enormous impact in creating a national character that cares for the land” 

Robert Pyle, The Thunder Tree


For a number of years, public interest in using pathways along the banks of irrigation canals in the state of Utah for recreational purposes has been increasing, particularly in urbanized areas.  Many cities within major metropolitan areas throughout the state of Utah have been struggling for years with the idea of using irrigation canals that run in and around their borders as recreational corridors.  Pressure for public access onto these canal corridors has increased in response to rapid growth and development, resulting in growing community demand for trail networks that allow access to nearby parks and public lands.  It is their interlaced presence throughout communities and their optimal physical and ecological characteristics, including a graded maintenance road, that make these canal corridors perfect candidates for fulfilling these needs for open space and pathways.

A number of cities within Utah have realized the unique recreational opportunities provided by irrigation canal corridors, but have only recently begun implementation of plans to utilize them.  Logan is one such city.  Given the  adoption of the 1998 Parks, Recreation, Trails and Open Space Master Plan, the City of Logan offers a prevalent illustration of general issues related to canal trails and the related concerns of canal companies and adjacent homeowners.  The plan calls for pursuing rights-of-way acquisition for the banks of portions of Logan’s irrigation canal system as part of its goals and policies to “Establish a multi-use trail where possible to connect the existing portions of trails.”  Even Utah’s Recreational Trails Council has interest in funding these canal projects.  Because Logan is not alone in this effort, a study that deals with the contemporary issues and concerns specific to Utah is needed.



Informal Use

Informal use of canal rights-of-way is widespread.  Every spring, water is diverted and flows through headgates into the web of canals throughout the state of Utah and every spring more people make use of the maintenance roads and paths that run along them for recreational purposes.  Whether it is formal or informal, legal or illegal, irrigation canal rights-of-way throughout the west have been used as recreational corridors for many years.  As cities have grown around these canals their informal or unauthorized use has increased exponentially.  While this situation is understandably preferred by recreationists who see it as their own personal and “private” open space, this increasing unmanaged use is a concern for canal companies.   

Whether one likes it or not, a single use has turned into a multiple use.  Although the original intention of canal companies was purely utilitarian (convey water to shareholders as efficiently as possible and minimize any obstructions that interfere with that goal), these utility corridors have taken on an informal “underground” value that is much wider in scope.  They are used by communities as alternative transportation corridors and recreational assets.  The maintenance roads that run along the banks of these canals have often become established and ingrained as recreational corridors within the surrounding communities.  Walking, jogging and biking are the most typical, but other activities such as off-road vehicle use, cross county skiing, snowshoeing, tubing and swimming are also occurring.  These uses can sometimes interfere with the goal of the canal company to efficiently supply their shareholders with water.  In some cases, especially along easement owned canals, canal companies have met this unmanaged use halfway.  They have realized that putting up fencing is not going to solve their problem and opted to tolerate the use while posting signage and taking the time to occasionally stop to educate users of the dangers and ownership issues.

In response to expanding use, canal companies have erected fences or intensified their signing and notice efforts warning recreationists to use the canal banks at their own risk.  Frequently, adjacent landowners uncertain about legal right status will assume ownership of the right-of-way and obstruct access by fencing across the maintenance path.  Regardless, whether they are gated, fenced, posted or monitored the public has found ways to overcome these obstacles by taking advantage of the existing recreational potential canal maintenance roads have to offer.  Professor James Kennedy of Utah State University, a long time proponent of public access who has done extensive research on this subject was interviewed for this study.  According to Professor  Kennedy, “…you are going to get recreational use out of the canals whether it is on the black market or the table market.  It is either going to be trespass or law abiding; you get people using these canals and they are going to maintain them. The canal companies are inhibited just as much as the recreationists when they put a fence up, and they never had the courage to go tear it down any more than we did with the Berlin Wall…”. 


Conflicts of Interest

            The interests of cities, recreationists, adjacent homeowners and canal companies can vary widely in response to a proposal for canal trail development.  While canal company officials have some critical concerns, many recognize the existing public services their canal system provides and consider it “neighborly behavior” to allow such use (Kennedy and Unhanand, 1974).  Unfortunately, recreationists tend to show their gratitude by not picking up after their dogs, throwing debris and general garbage into the canal inhibiting flow and compounding the trashy appearance.  Adjacent homeowners, assuming or claiming ownership, will fence and landscape the right of way, blocking canal access.  Adjacent homeowners also see recreationists as a threat to their privacy and safety. 

            A conflict of interest also occurs between city planners and canal companies.  When the critical interests of canal companies are overlooked or wrongly perceived, the potential for conflict is heightened.  Canal company interests are not the same as those of the cities.  One of the problems is not giving the canal companies interests equal status. The canal companies interests ultimately have to do with the bottom line, or their main goal, which is to administer to the canal and keep tabs on any obstructions to conveyance to the shareholders.  They also understand the dangers associated with canals better than anybody and the prospect of opening it up to the public will undoubtedly be greeted with some trepidation.

Once formal recognition of recreation occurs, a big fear of canal companies is interference of the routine operation and maintenance of the canal. Among other duties, ditchriders need to keep the canal flowing by pulling snags and general garbage out of the canal and make sure the operating lateral gates are working properly.  Therefore their  trucks will more than likely, need to use the same trail as recreationists, causing a possible conflict with trail users such as joggers listening to headphones. 


Liability Issues

                        Liability issues connected to opening canal banks for recreational uses are of primary concern for the underlying landowners and canal companies.  As far as the canal companies are concerned the two key problems posed by recreational use are (1) interference with ditch operation and maintenance and (2) greatly increased exposure to lawsuits.  On narrow easements for example, the construction of sidewalks may be incompatible with the ditch companies deposit of dredge silt and other ditch debris or the company’s operation of heavy equipment.  Due to these and other potential dangers, lawsuits initiated by cyclists or others are a realistic concern. (Henderson, 1987)  Therefore, any plan for trail development needs to consider the operational requirements of the canal company, such as suitable space for the piling of debris and the unencumbered access of heavy equipment. 

            Utah and many other states have recreational use statutes (RUS) which immunize landowners from liability when they allow the public to enter their land for recreational activities.  States vary in regard to the recreational activities covered and whether landowners need to give permission for the public to engage in those activities in order to receive protection.  Questions arise over duty of care and whether the owner acted willfully and maliciously in endangering users  (Lee, 1995).  Fear of suit is legitimate and unfortunately is a major obstacle to developing canal trails. 

One way canal companies overcome this problem is to pipe the canal and fill in the ditch with soil.  The primary reasons for piping are to decrease evaporative loss and seepage, to decrease water contamination, and to reduce maintenance costs, thereby increasing delivery efficiency.  While piping is also effective in decreasing liability risks, it is  an extreme undertaking and very costly.  From the community perspective, such action results in the loss of an aesthetic amenity and a possible cultural and historical landmark.  Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. summed up the essence of an open canal in his 1910 pamphlet of  “Plan of Improvements” for Boulder Colorado:

Given sunshine and breeze and the wonderful plunging view across the valley to rugged mountains bathed in sunlight; given shade from the direct glare of the sun and sky, easily to be obtained by planting; the one thing wanted to complete the situation is water, and the quiet flowing canal on its way to irrigate the fields beyond the city gives the very note that is needed.  To be sure its banks are here shabby and neglected, the vegetation is weedy and an appearance of squalor is more or less in evidence, so that a superficial observer might turn away without feeling the least interest in the ditch.  But all the essential elements of the most beautiful scenes of Italy are here, waiting only a little patient, skillful care to unite them into a little picture of paradise.

(Qtd. By: University of Colorado at Denver)


Ownership and Legal Standing

              Ownership and legal standing of the irrigation canals is varied and in some cases perplexing.  When most canal construction began a century ago, ditches were dug across public domain land.  Their role was so obvious to state and local communities that no one questioned their legality or legitimacy.  “In such a social climate or setting, few companies got around to seeking legal title… the water and time flowed on without problems” (Kennedy and Unhanand, 1974, p.20).   Knowledge of the legal ownership of a canal corridor is important in beginning to see the existing picture of the canal.  Generally, canals are either privately or publicly owned.  If a city owns a section of a canal, it is only a small percentage of the total distance of the canal.  There are cases in which a city owns the canal in fee title such as the 71 mile long Highline Canal in Denver,  but this is rare.  Canal rights-of-way can also be privately owned by the respective canal company.  As is the case with a couple of the canals studied in this paper, they are also publicly owned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation.  Things begin to get complicated when the land up to the canal is owned in fee title by adjacent landowners.  In these cases canal companies usually posses a form of easement through each of the individual properties.

The question of whom has the right to provide access for recreational use of the canal corridor is the first legal stumbling block.  For recreational use to occur on a canal easement, the underlying landowner would need to provide permission, as long as the use does not unreasonably interfere with the operation and maintenance of the canal  (Grand Junction Urban Trails Committee, 1996).  The first issue is identifying the type of ownership that exists.  Determining whether it has been adversely possessed by the canal company or is owned by the adjacent landowners and/or what type of easement exists, can necessitate a long and arduous search of city-county records  A second issue involves determining the method used for acquiring the right-of-way.  Techniques may include condemnation, prescriptive rights, adverse possession and other legal strategies.


Need for Open Space Conservation

Throughout the United States there is a growing understanding of the importance and benefits of conserving and utilizing open space within communities.  According to the City of Logan Parks, Recreation, Trails and Open Space Master Plan, about 86% of the respondents to a Community Needs Survey conducted in July of 1997, indicated that the city should acquire land to preserve open space and develop future parks.  Respondents rated walking and jogging as one of the top five activities they participate in (Landmark Design, Inc., 1997).  Individuals between the ages of 25-64 rated it as their first choice.  In terms of trails, about 73% of the respondents felt that recreational trails are either very important or important, over 77% desired walking/jogging trails and another 52% wanted recreational bicycle trails (Landmark Design, Inc., 1997).  This overwhelming public mandate is common throughout the United States.  The results of a 1995 home buyers study which was published in the Washington Post suggested that citizens “are putting an increasingly high premium on interaction with the outdoor environment through the inclusion of wooded tracts, nature paths and even ‘wilderness where possible.” People want “lots of natural open space” and “plenty of walking and biking paths” (qtd. in Utah Division of Parks and Recreation,, 1997, p. 1).

            The idea that municipalities cannot afford to invest in bicycling and walking facilities is challenged by the fact that local communities across the country, through their overmatching of Federal transportation funds, have shown a strong desire to fund bicycle, pedestrian and trail projects.  In fact local contributions often exceed the minimum requirements.  For example, while the Federal government requires a 20 percent funding match from state or local public agencies for Transportation Enhancement projects, they have been averaging a 27 percent match for bicycle and pedestrian projects using these funds  (NBPC, 1996).  According to a 1994 poll of what American home shoppers want and will pay a premium for in a new community, approximately 70 percent cited availability of “walking and biking paths” as an important consideration.  This ranked third highest out of 39 features listed as crucial in persuading them to buy in a particular new development. (“Lots of natural open space” ranked second at 77 percent, and “community designs that deliver low traffic and quiet” ranked first at 93 percent.)  The results were based on responses of at least 800 consumers who bought or shopped for a home in planned communities  (Harney, 1995).

Utah’s need for trails as valuable open space is similar to that of the nation.  The results of a 1990 Household Recreation study conducted for the state’s Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) show that development, integration and improvement of trail systems is one of the top ten outdoor recreation issues in the state.  The most popular activity was walking for pleasure, and bicycle paths, lanes, and walking paths were among the top ten most needed new recreation facilities in communities  (Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, 1997).  According to the 1997 Utah Trails Assessment, development of more new trails was by far the most important trail issue/need identified in a series of public meetings held throughout the state in 1993 and 1994 (Utah Division of Parks and Recreation,, 1997).  In this study both Logan and St.George identified canals as possibilities for trail development.

According to the 1997 U.S. Bureau of the Census state profile there are 25.08 people per square mile in Utah and almost 80 percent of the state’s population lives within major metropolitan areas.  In terms of percent of population living in metropolitan areas, Utah ranked 20th in 1994  (U.S. Census Bureau, 1995).   According to a state population ranking summary from 1995 to 2025, Utah’s population in 1995 was approximately 2 million and is projected to be 2.9 million in 2025 making it the 34th most populous state.  This net gain (931,000 people) ranks as the 18th largest in the nation.  An important statistic reveals that at 47.7 percent rate of projected population change from 1995 to 2025, Utah ranks as the 7th largest rate of change.  And between 1995 to 2000, with a net increase of 256,000 people, Utah would rank as the 13th largest net gain in the nation.  Whereas in 1995, 0.7 percent of the nation’s population resides in Utah, in 2025, 0.9 percent will.  The number and proportion of Utah’s population that is 18 years old and over is expected to increase from 1.3 million or 65.4 percent in 1995 to 2.1 million or 71.2 percent in 2025.  And the proportion of Utah’s population classified as elderly (65 and older) is expected to increase from 172,000 or 8.8 percent in 1995 to 495,000 or 17.1 percent in 2025.  If the preferences of Logan residents age 25-65 for walking and jogging are representative of the state as a whole, it could be concluded that by the year 2025 approximately 2 million residents or 70 percent of Utah’s population will be demanding walking and jogging access within their communities.

Although Utah has a low population density overall, its residents are crowded into a relatively small area of private land.  As Kennedy and unhanand (1974) warned more than a quarter-century ago:

Utah is one of the most urban and congested states in the nation.  Still, most of Utah’s people and its community-state agencies perceive themselves as rural.  A few of the numerous reasons for this are (1) a strong attachment to the pioneer past (2) immediate automobile access from Utah cities to public land, and (3) being able to view isolated mountain peaks from most downtown Utah urban area.  So, why worry about neighborhood canals, a stream corridor, or the last undeveloped farm in the neighborhood- one can easily escape to the mountains on the weekend… Many Utah urbanites are mentally or physically off to Fish Lake or the Uinta Mountains as a developer files for a zoning change on the last piece of open space in the neighborhood….  The euphoria this produces may inhibit the eleventh most urban state in the nation from waging the long hard battle of shaping humane cities and identifiable, enjoyable neighborhoods… Canals are one open space asset Utahn’s must fight to protect in the future.  This will require increased public awareness of present and future recreation-open space values of canals  (Kennedy and Unhanand, 1974).  


As the recent studies indicated above show, cities such as Logan and others throughout Utah are beginning to understand and share this urgent view which was foretold 25 years ago and are looking to canals as an open space asset worthy of protection.


Need for Linkage of Open Space

There is a sometimes easily overlooked need for linkage of open spaces within and around our communities.  As commercial and residential development in communities such as Logan have spread out at an ever-increasing pace they have left only traces and remnant patches of open space within the new communities.  The demand for links to these patches and the nearby mountains increases in response to this growth.  Irrigation canals offer a unique opportunity to fill a need most growing communities in the west have for interconnected systems of alternative transportation.  They can provide linkages between recreation opportunities, and add cohesion to many attractions within the city (Landmark Design, Inc., 1997).

The identification of the need for a trail network throughout Logan City is not new.  It has been brought up as a need in many planning efforts and documents including the Parks, Recreation, Trails and Open Space Plan (1985-1995), the Bike/ Pedestrian Trails Master Plan for Logan and surrounding Cache Valley (1994) and the City of Logan General Plan (1995).  The Bike/Pedestrian Trails Master Plan recommended the implementation of a network of bike lanes and dedicated bike/pedestrian paths throughout the City of Logan and Cache Valley.  One of its goals was to establish a continuous bike/pedestrian trail system for inter- and intra-city transportation.  The plan suggested the use of irrigation canals to establish trails that traverse the city  (Landmark Design, Inc., 1997).  Logan City is not the only city in Utah that has long been struggling with the idea of utilizing existing irrigation canals that are in proximity or accessible to urban areas in order to fill a need for trail network plans.  According to John Knudson, trails coordinator with Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, “the Recreational Trails Advisory Council  (advises and makes recommendations to the Division and State Parks Board and reviews proposals for funding through the Non-Motorized Trails Fiscal Assistance Program) really wants to start funding canal projects because the canals go everywhere.”  He also mentioned that the Salt Lake County Regional Trails Plan calls for this but has not yet accomplished it.          

In Whyte’s The Last Landscape (Whyte, 1968), within the chapter “Linkage” he writes: “There are all sorts of opportunities to link separated [open] spaces together, and while plenty of money is needed to do it, ingenuity can accomplish a great deal.  Our metropolitan areas are crisscrossed with connective strips.  Many are no longer used,… but they are there if only we will look” ( Little, 1995).


Need for a Large Scale Pilot Project

After searching for a large scale, formally developed canal-trail within the state of Utah it became apparent that there is a need for a pilot project for recreation planners and communities to look to as a model.  While there are a handful of established canal trails in northern Utah (which for the most part are small-scale), there are no well-known large scale trails which can be emulated.



The Extinction of Experience

            It is important for the average resident to begin to understand the significance of viewing their immediate natural surroundings as valuable open space, which, in the case of canal corridors, could offer them an alternative form of access to outlying amenities.  Quality open space goes hand in hand with quality neighborhoods.  The paradigm that generally views open space as parks every other mile or so along a main street should begin to include smaller, better distributed space that is closer to one’s living room (Kennedy and unhanand, 1974).  As William Whyte (author of many books and papers on open space and credited with advancing the term and concept of greenways to a large audience) has argued:

“The trouble with the generalized green belt approach is that it asks for too much land and without justifying it.  We will not save much open space that way… I argue that we must concentrate on the smaller spaces, the irregular bits and pieces, and especially those that we can connect together.  There are an amazing number of connective links right under out noses if we will only look for them old aqueducts, abandoned canals, railroad rights of way, former streams the engineers have put in concrete troughs”  (qtd. In Kennedy and unhanand, 1974, p. 57).


In Robert Pyle’s The Thunder Tree he asks, “What do shreds and scraps of the natural scene mean, after all in the shadow of the citified whole?  What can one patch of leftover land mean to one person’s life, or to the lives of all who dwell in the postindustrial wasteland?”  In answering this question, he uses his lifelong experience of growing up near the High Line Canal in Denver as a method for “weaving a rooted companionship with home ground” and for “awakening interest in places like the High Line Canal in every community.”  In his chapter “The Extinction of Experience”, he warns of the loss of our experience of nature, within our own local radius, through extinction of neighborhood species and a lack of access to it:

“One of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live.  We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world…this implies a cycle of disaffection that can have disastrous consequences…as citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat.  This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of the common habitat…This is how the passing of otherwise common species from our immediate vicinities can be as significant as the total loss of rarities.  We all need spots near home where we can wander off a trail, lift a stone, poke about, and merely wonder…For these purposes, nothing serves better than the hand-me-down habitats that lie somewhere between formal protection and development” (Pyle, 1993).


            While there are a number of challenges to developing recreation trails along irrigation canals, the “extinction of experience” Robert Pyle speaks of is probably one of the most fundamental.  Irrigation canals would be a good example of the “hand-me-down habitat” he speaks of.  Canal rights-of-way can provide urban populations the common, local contact with nature needed to improve awareness and appreciation for the ecology of our immediate surroundings.  And since in most cases these  corridors would connect us to the outlying agrarian landscapes and watersheds, they would also improve awareness and appreciation for the larger matrix of our regional landscapes.



This study examines the issues of recreational use of canals in the state of Utah.  Because of the emphasis on urban settings, most of the research has been focused on the Wasatch Front since this is where the metropolitan majority is.  Given the extraordinary growth in Washington and Summit Counties these areas have also been considered.  This is not to say that the information herein is not  pertinent to other regions of the state, but that the research has been based on regions most likely to be developing canal trails.  While the locally driven issues particular to each city are quite different, it is the belief of this study that there are general issues on the state level that may be pertinent to most cities interested in developing canal trails.  Therefore, by concentrating on the state of Utah as a whole it is hoped that this study has illuminated general issues that may help any city within the state develop these unique corridors.



1.      To gain an understanding of and to identify the significant issues and concerns of canal company officials and adjacent homeowners as related to recreational trail development along irrigation canals which are in close proximity or accessible to urban areas in the state of Utah.

2.      To identify pertinent legal constraints and opportunities with an emphasis on canal companies in Utah.  This has been accomplished by researching legal information in order to find out if there are general consistencies related to legal ownership standings of urban canal corridors within the state of Utah.  Research of liability information as it relates to the canal company and the adjacent homeowner has also been conducted.

3.      To identify the possibilities and solutions generated by the research and interviews of issues and concerns. 

4.      To develop planning recommendations based on findings.



“Whether its our agency or any body else, I think it is helpful to be able to have something that says as you move forward you need to be aware of all the issues, and possible ways in which to address them.  Maybe there are some ways to resolve them, maybe not, but at least a study is something that gives you insider direction or recommendations, if not resolving it, then at least addressing the issues.  The issues can then be isolated and easier to deal with.”

                                                Russ Akina, Director of Logan Parks and Recreation

After a thorough literature review it is apparent that there is a need for documentation of the concerns and issues specific to developing recreational trails along irrigation canals.   There are many unpublished studies and reports that briefly deal with the subject but no actual published studies that deal specifically with the critical concerns of canal companies related to development of irrigation canals in Utah.

This study has compiled and summarized the major issues related to use of irrigation canal rights-of-way as recreational trails.  It is hoped that the findings of this evaluation will be of use in addressing common issues and concerns related to the  planning of a canal trail.

It is also hoped that the findings that are specific to Utah will provide useful information (a source book) for recreation planners and cities within the state that are involved in the development of trails along irrigation canals.  Logan’s plans for establishing trails along the canals that would link major recreational uses in and around their city are not unique.  Since other major metropolitan areas within the state of Utah are also in the midst of similar efforts, general issues and concerns that come out of this study should be of use to planners throughout the state.  A completed (or partial) urban canal trail within the state of Utah would serve as a long needed pilot project, modeling the benefits of such projects for other metropolitan areas.  An evaluation of the concerns and issues involved in such a project could be valuable as a reference not only for Logan but for other cities in Utah as well. 

            A major source of information for this report involved open-ended interviews with canal company officers throughout the state of Utah.  These open-ended interviews were held with the intent of enabling the officers to speak in as natural a conversation as possible.  In addition to this I have reviewed literature dealing with the  concerns related to trail development efforts including, but not limited to canal corridors.  These range from rail-trail efforts, to river trails, to utility corridors.  Where further information is pertinent exerpts are taken from surveys and reports dealing with the impacts and effects of these trails on communities and landowners. 



            This study is not a substitute for legal advice.  The research, interview results and conclusions presented in this study are offered simply as examples.  The legal consequences, risks, and benefits of these examples are for the reader with legal counsel to determine.  This study mentions some basic liability issues and legal defenses, but it is not a legal guide or substitute for legal advice.  Anyone concerned with liability and landownership should get their own legal counsel to consider and protect their interests.  

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Updated September 1, 2006

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