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Two articles: For and Against use of irrigation canals for trail recreation in western Colorado

Editor's note: The use of canal roads for recreation has been a growing issue of dispute in the Grand Valley. The Daily Sentinel asked Bob Cron, cochairman of the Grand Junction Urban Trails Committee, and Dick Proctor, manager of the Grand Valley Water Users' Association, to offer their thoughts on the issue (June 1997).

Canal roads, recreation problems can be solved, says Urban Trails Committee

By Bob Cron
Grand Junction Urban Trails Committee

Map of Colorado

The Grand Junction Urban Trails Committee is a non-political, citizen volunteer organization. The mandate of the group is to coordinate, promote and facilitate the construction and/or designation of bicycle and pedestrian trails, routes and lanes throughout the urban part of the valley. Citizens of our community need these bike and pedestrian facilities to provide access to parks, schools, and city center and other points of interest, as well as for recreational values.

One issue with high interest for the residents of our county is the use of irrigation canal banks for recreation trails. The Urban Trails Committee recently responded to that interest by spending almost a full year studying the feasibility of trails on canal banks. We concluded that recreation trails on canal banks are feasible. Our study and findings are documented in Feasibility Study - Recreation Use of a Portion of the Grand Valley Government Highline canal, which was released in September of 1996.

Presently, political support exists for trails on canal banks where the cooperation of the underlying landowners, canal companies and affected government agencies can be negotiated.

A bill was introduced in the Colorado Legislature this year to attempt to give private landowners and canal companies liability protection if they agree to open portions of their property or canal facilities to public recreation. Although last year's bill failed, this year the Colorado Municipal League worked with Colorado Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations to produce a bill more acceptable to all sides. House Bill 1132, sponsored by Rep. Jeannie Reeser, D-Thornton, and Sen. Don Ament, R-Iliff, was signed by Gov. Roy Romer in March.

Completing the negotiations and processes to make recreation a reality on canal roads will, however, take a lot of dedication, understanding, persuasion and persistence. Preliminary discussions have resulted in strong opposition from canal companies and concern from some canal-bank landowners.

The factual situation is that most of our large irrigation canals cross private lands under the terms of an easement. The underlying private landowner is the key to determining what uses other than the irrigation canal will occur on these lands. The private landowner may provide an easement for a recreation trail or sell the underlying land as he or she sees fit. If the landowner is willing to provide a recreation-trail easement or sell the land, we are confident that the concerns can be acceptably worked out.

Similar issues and concerns have been resolved in other communities such as Denver and Phoenix, as well as in our own valley, as evidenced by the Audubon Trail along the north bank of the Redlands Water and Power Canal from the Brach's Shopping Center to Connected Lakes State Park.

The most significant issues found in the feasibility study and some of the potential resolutions are:

* The potential for increased liability to the landowners and affected canal company which can be resolved by assumption of liability for the recreation trail by the sponsoring public entity.

* Interference with canal operation and maintenance can be resolved acceptably with trail closures during heavy-equipment maintenance and reconstruction activity and by recreation users avoiding interfering with the passage of ditch-tender vehicles.

* Vandalism should not increase because of the additional eyes and ears of trail users and increased law enforcement, as well as some fencing of sensitive irrigation structures. Increased costs for maintenance and fencing of sensitive facilities, etc. should be paid by the trail-sponsoring agency.

* Safety need not be compromised. We have heard from a number of citizens who feel that use of canal banks would be safer than walking or biking on city streets. Small children must be supervised by parents on canal banks, just as elsewhere. And the extra presence of citizens should prevent drownings rather than increase the occurence.

* Loss of privacy for landowner homes close to the canal can be a negative factor, but that is part of the landowner decision on whether or not to provide a trail easement - fencing and vegetative screening can help where there are concerns. We have heard from some canal-bank landowners who want to walk or bike along the canal and who enjoy seeing neighbors passing their residences.

* Security in adjacent homes has not been a problem elsewhere but is something for which trail users should be alert and which we will want to monitor.

* Property values in other locations have not changed significantly, although homes not directly adjacent to the canal banks have tended to increase modestly.

* Concerns about motorized vehicle use should disappear as motorized use is eliminated from the canal banks other than that needed by the canal companies for trail maintenance and that needed for law enforcement.

So far, in our contacts with Grand Valley Water Users' Association, the canal company in the area of the feasibility study, the association board has maintained that any recreation use on canal banks would unacceptably interfere with their operations and maintenance. We do not agree and hope that, where landowners are willing to provide a recreation-trail easement across their lands, the water company will recognize the need to sit down with the sponsoring agency to work out an acceptable accommodation for both uses.

The Urban Trails Committee remains willing to work with landowners, canal companies and citizens of the urbanized area within and adjacent to Grand Junction to facilitate and resolve concerns about recreation-trail use on irrigation canal banks.

Cron wrote this in cooperation with Pat Kennedy, the cochair of the Urban Trails Committee.

A Troublesome Mix: Property rights in jeopardy, contends Water Users' Association

Opinion by irrigation companies against the use of canals for recreation trails in western Colorado.

By Richard Protor
Grand Valley Water Users' Association

Spring is here. Water is again flowing in the canals of the Grand Valley to provide irrigation for thousands of acres of farm fields and suburban lawns. Once again a few dozen people persist in ignoring "No Trespassing" signs and enter unauthorized upon the canal banks without consent of the affected landowners or the irrigation companies.

The irrigation companies wish to protect and preserve the intended use of the irrigation facilities by authorized persons and to protect and preserve the health and safety of the general public. Most people who trespass on canals are oblivious to the hazards that exist within the canal corridor. The canals are dangerous because of fast-flowing cold water, steep canal banks, non-visible underwater hazards, siphons, spillways, bridges and conduits. Just being on a canal roadway is hazardous. the roadway is the workplace needed by the canal companies to make deliveries to individual water-user headgates and laterals that carry water to lands father away from the canals.

These canal roadways are also used to make daily inspections of the canal for possible leaks, cave-ins and other happenings that can cause loss of water services, failure of the canal and property damages to neighboring landowners. Unobstructed access to the entire lengths of both sides of the canals is absolutely necessary to assure safe operation of the canals and preserve the safety of the general public.

In recent years, different factions have pushed to open portions of the canal banks in the Grand Valley for public recreation purposes, particularly for walking, jogging and bicycling. But, private property rights of the underlying landowner have been championed by the canal companies. There are specific parcels of land underlying the canals or adjacent to the canals that are owned directly in fee title by the canal company or canal system. However, a large portion of the canals exist by easements over land owned by someone else.

Easements can be by prescription, defined by continued assertion and use of said easement for the period of the statute of limitations, which is 18 years in Colorado. Easements can be granted or reserved in writing or set by specific enacted legislation. The easements are perpetual and only for construction, operation and maintenance of the canal. Canal companies cannot give third-party access to the canal easements without the underlying landowner's permission. On the other hand, landowners cannot permit anything that will interfere with the canal easements. Unauthorized entry onto canal banks can be a two-pronged trespass issue. Trespass against the underlying landowner and/or trespass against the canal company's easement.

Liability issues connected to opening canal banks for recreational use are an enormous concern for the underlying landowners and canal companies. House Bill 1132, that was passed into law this year, contained provisions relating to the limitation on liability of private landowners who voluntarily open their land for public recreational purposes. one provision of HB 1132 is that if the property on which irrigation facilities are constructed (currently considered an attractive nuisance) is used for public recreation, the property and water on it shall not constitute an attractive nuisance.

In our opinion, HB 1132 does not contain provisions specific enough to limit liability of the canal companies that may not own the land, but claim an interest in the land by virtue of canal easements. It is not logical to say that an irrigation canal and the appurtenant structures are classified as an attractive nuisance until such time as the public is invited on the adjacent property for recreational purposes. Limitation of liability must extend to the entire canal corridor to be effective and must not just be limited to an 8- or 10-foot-wide path on a particular side of a canal.

Law-enforcement protection for canal companies, landowners and proposed recreational users against theft, vandalism and personal injury has not been addressed to the satisfaction of the area canal companies.

Public use on canal banks will assuredly cause increased operational and maintenance costs of affected irrigation facilities. Any such cost increase must be borne by others than the water users of the canal companies. Use of canal banks for recreational purposes will result in unreasonable interference with the operation and maintenance of the canal and irrigation system. Factual conflicts can exist in determining if such recreational activities unreasonably interfere with canal operations. These issues must be resolved before any planning of trails on canal banks can be furthered.

Canal recreation supporters point to Denver's Highline Canal and canals in the Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz., area that allow trails on their canal banks as examples. The Highline Canal in denver is owned by the Denver Water Authority which, being a governmental body, enjoys immunity or limited liability without the provisions of HB 1132. The Phoenix/Scottsdale area canals are concrete lined. The Grand Valley canals are mostly unlined earthen canals that flow following the highest contour possible to allow gravity-flow irrigation to fields lower in elevation than the canal. The soils that make up canal banks are expansive, requiring different maintenance practices than concrete-lined canals.

Area canal companies have cooperatively promoted no-trespassing educational measures for several years. These efforts have been successful in that no drownings occurred in the canals in 1996. We pray to keep that record for a long time.

The feasibility study of recreation use on irrigation canals was done on a 2-mile section of the Government Highline Canal in cooperation with the city of Grand Junction, Mesa County and the Bureau of Reclamation and prepared by the Grand Junction Urban Trails Committee. The study report released in September 1996 did not resolve issues brought forth by the canal companies. The study showed that the underlying landowners within the study area did not favor recreational use of the canal bank.

The Grand Valley Water Users' Association stockholders voted at their 1996 annual meeting to go on record as being opposed to allowing recreational trails on the Government Highline Canal banks.

Please don't risk the safety of yourself or others by trespassing on irrigation facilities.

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