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Shooting on a Meramec gravel bar draws attention to uncertain property rights


The July 20 shooting on a gravel bar along the Meramec River,  downstream from the Highway 19 bridge south of Cuba, Missouri, has drawn attention to the uncertainties of the rights of floaters to be on gravel bars and areas adjacent to the river.  This section of the Meramec River, downstream from Maramec Spring, carries thousands of canoes, rafts and kayaks every year.

The reports of the shooting incident recount an argument between James Robert Crocker, apparently the owner of land along the river, and a group of floaters who had stopped on a gravel bar for the usual reasons. Crocker confronted the group of floaters. An argument ensued over whether the floaters were trespassing, according to Crocker’s statement to the police. Crocker shot one of the floaters, Paul Dart, who died on the way to the hospital.

On Monday, I received the first of several calls from the media. Kim Bell, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told me that somebody at the Missouri Department of Conservation told her that I was knowledgeable about issues relating to rights of property owners and persons using streams for recreation. The story that Kim Bell wrote for the Post-Dispatch’s online edition has been widely copied, and my flippant remark that Missouri doesn’t yet have a stand-your-gravel-bar law became the basis for a Post-Dispatch editorial that has also circulated around the internet and appeared in several newspapers.

Kim Bell accurately reported what I said, but part of my remarks appear to be a misstatement of law. I said, “You are on private property, but you have a right to be there if it’s a navigable stream and as long as you are on a gravel bar that is submerged during parts of the year, because it’s part of the stream bed.”

I should have also explained that the public’s right to be on a stream doesn’t depend solely on whether the stream is navigable. In Elder v. Delcour (1954), the Missouri Supreme Court held that the public has an easement over the Meramec River, even though it was not navigable:

we must and do hold that the waters of the Meramec River are public waters and the submerged area of its channel over and across appellant’s farm is a public highway for travel and passage by floating and by wading, for business or for pleasure, and that in traveling the course of the stream by canoe or wading, respondent was not a trespasser on the property of appellant.

Even though the Meramec River in Dent and Crawford counties has been determined to be non-navigable by the Missouri Supreme Court, it is still a public highway as a matter of law. A trespass does not occur by canoeing or wading on it. The issue of navigability has to do with ownership of the stream bed, not the right to be in a the bed of a stream. Neither the Missouri Supreme Court or the legislature have given us any clear way to determine whether any other stream’s waters are “public waters.”

To get to the heart of the dispute between Crocker and the floaters, what about the right to be on a gravel bar?  In Elder v. Delcour, the court cites another case for idea that the right to float on a stream includes other incidental rights:

The right to float is but a right of passage, and includes only such rights as are incident to the use of the stream for that purpose, and necessary to render such use reasonably available.

If people could not stop on a gravel bar to dump water out of a swamped boat, eat lunch or attend to calls of nature, the rights of passage would be greatly inhibited if not denied. But permissible incidental rights do not ordinarily include the right to walk outside the course of a stream  into pastures and woods,  dump litter, broadcast music, shoot fireworks, cut firewood, pilfer outbuildings and disturb livestock and human residents.

My essay on Missouri stream law is here.

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