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April 26, 2004
First Local Access Plan Created for Riverbed Vehicles
MASON, Texas — The first local community plan to allow controlled motor vehicle access in a state-owned riverbed has been approved by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Since a new state law banning riverbed vehicle traffic went into effect Jan. 1, Mason County is the only local government to finalize such a plan, although several other communities are developing or considering similar plans. Senate Bill 155 in the last legislative session gave TPWD the authority to restrict riverbed vehicle traffic but included a provision to allow the state agency to approve local river access plans.
Known locally as the James River Crossing, the area covered by the Mason County plan is just off FM 2389 where it crosses the Llano River. The site is about 500 yards long by about 250 yards across. It includes a state-owned gravel island within the river bed where the road crosses it that’s been a longtime access point for swimmers, kayakers, canoers, and anglers, according to Mason County Attorney Shain Chapman.
"We just hated to see something like that taken away from the public when I don’t think that was the intent behind the legislation," Chapman said. "I think the clear intent was to stop the four-wheeling activities that were taking place on some points of the river, but not prohibiting folks from using the river in appropriate ways."
Chapman said TPWD game wardens came to him last year as a proactive step, saying they realized this area might cause a problem, and encouraged county officials to consider a local river access plan.
The Mason County plan allows river enthusiasts access similar to what they had before, but with a few restrictions.
"They can’t drive in the water at any time," Chapman said. "They can travel in their vehicles in the dry area of the gravel river bar covered by the plan, but there’s a five mile-per-hour speed limit. We do have a restriction that allows no ATVs. We also prohibit any motorized vehicle traffic in that area between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Otherwise, we allow people to continue to camp, fish or whatever the case may be."
For several months, TPWD game wardens have been notifying people they encounter on or near rivers that the new law is now in effect. In many cases, wardens issue warnings the first time they encounter vehicles in riverbeds, but then issue citations for subsequent incidents. Game wardens report generally good compliance with the new law across the state, noting that in the past three months they have issued 74 warnings and only eight citations statewide. Local sheriff’s deputies and other peace officers are also enforcing the law. A first offense is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of as much as $500. Repeat offenders could face higher fines and jail time.
The new law pertains to any "navigable river or stream" in Texas except for the Canadian River and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River in the Panhandle.
The law prohibits motor vehicles from operating in "that portion of the bed, bottom, or bank of any navigable river or stream that lies at or below the gradient boundary of the river or stream."
It defines navigable river or stream as "a river or stream that retains an average width of 30 or more feet from the mouth or confluence up."
A motor vehicle is defined as "any wheeled or tracked vehicle, machine, tractor, trailer, or semi-trailer propelled or drawn by mechanical power and used to transport a person or thing."
The public continues to have the right to travel along navigable waterways as long as the restrictions on motor vehicle use are observed. The law says "a person may not restrict, obstruct, interfere with, or limit public recreational use of a protected freshwater area." It also contains various exemptions for motor vehicle use in riverbeds by emergency and law enforcement personnel, utility workers, adjacent landowners and others.
The law grew out of Senate Bill 155, sponsored in the Texas Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. Rep. Robert Puente of San Antonio sponsored a companion bill in the Texas House of Representatives.
The law also directs TPWD to "facilitate the development of motor vehicle recreation sites that are not located in or on a protected freshwater area." The department administers the National Recreational Trails Fund in Texas, awarding grants to build or maintain trails for hiking, biking and similar uses. This is funded by a portion of federal gasoline taxes on non-highway recreational vehicles. By law, a certain percentage of funds are supposed to be used for motor vehicle trails, but TPWD has historically received few grant applications to meet this need. The department is now actively seeking appropriate sites and grant proposals that provide alternatives for off-road vehicles away from rivers and other sensitive areas.
SB155 did not clarify or change the legal definition of a navigable river or stream. This has long been a source of confusion and controversy in Texas, with river recreationists and private property owners sometimes clashing about whether a particular area on or near a river is considered "navigable" according to the law. A key issue is where the "gradient boundary" at a river’s edge actually lies.
TPWD has created a new set of Web pages covering topics related to SB155 (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers/mvindex.phtml). There are links here to the entire text of the law and to various committee and research reports that led to it. These pages also include local access plan guidelines and practical advice about navigable streams and river access.
Questions about Local River Access Plans or other provisions of SB 155 may be directed to (512) 389-4725 or (800) 792-1112, extension 4725 or to email@example.com.
Anyone interested in grant funding to create motor vehicle trails may contact Andy Goldbloom at (512) 912-7128 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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