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I have always assumed that if my Canoe will float, and the waterway ultimately reaches an ocean it is legal to travel on.

I looked around for documents that said it clearly one way or the other. Surprisingly I did not find anything helpful in this Wikipedia Article Water law in the United States

I did find this article Review of the Relationship of Federal and State Law Regarding Rivers but not the sure how neutral of source it is.

This question, assumes the access to the waterway is gained via a legal point of access. Crossing private land without permission, is not implied or part of this question.

In the US is it legal to travel on any river/creek the my canoe will navigate?

  • 3
    Note that not all watercourses run to the ocean. For example, the Great Basin (which covers most of Nevada, plus big chunks of Oregon and Utah and smaller parts of some neighbouring states) is endorheic. That is to say, it contains rivers and creeks but they all flow inwards and don't escape to the ocean. They end in lakes and marshes that lose the incoming water by evaporation. This is why the Great Salt Lake is salty. There are also other, smaller, endorheic basins in the US. – David Richerby Aug 31 '18 at 23:05
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    In Europe, many water stretches are forbidden for paddling during part or all of the year, for wildlife preservation purposes. Canoes are somewhat disturbing to river life while paddling, and even more disturbing is getting in and out of them, or taking a break on a bank. US has less ecologically motivated legal restrictions than Europe, but I would still be surprised if they have zero restrictions. So look into that angle. – rumtscho Sep 1 '18 at 10:13
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    @David Richerby: Even some of the waterways that flow into the Great Basin are considered navigable waters. For instance. Lake Tahoe is at an elevation of ~6225 ft in the Sierra Nevada, and its water flows into the Great Basin via the Truckee River, yet it has a US Coast Guard station: sierracgaux.org/welcome_to_sierra11.html – jamesqf Sep 1 '18 at 17:21
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    @jamesqf I was assuming there were navigable rivers in the Basin -- thanks for the confirmation that there are! – David Richerby Sep 1 '18 at 19:04
  • @David Richerby: Depends on your definition of "navigable". The Truckee between Tahoe & Reno is quite popular for kayaking, most of the time, though it can get pretty shallow in a drought. At the other extreme, there's the Reese River en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reese_River and its (possibly apocryphal) Navigation Company :-) – jamesqf Sep 3 '18 at 4:25
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All waters no, some places like National Parks require permits, see Dinosaur Monument and Canyonlands.

It also differs state by state, in some states the water belongs to the public but not the stream bed, so floating is fine but using an anchor is trespassing. In other states the public has a right to the water and the sides to the high water mark, so one can get out and wade.

In Wyoming, landowners own the streambed. Anyone may float across private land on navigable water, but the streambed is the property of the owner.

...

In Idaho, the state controls the waterways to the ‘Ordinary High Water Mark’ (OHWM); the land submerged below the ordinary high water mark of streams and rivers within the state are held by the Idaho Public Trust.

How Stream Access Laws Affect a Landowner

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    Surprisingly, 33 CFR 329 does not have a clear definition of what 'navigable' means to the US Government (Army Corps of Engineers). In legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Navigable+Waters one finds: "Using these tests, courts have held that bodies of water much smaller than lakes and rivers also constitute navigable waters. Even shallow streams that are traversable only by canoe have met the test." But you might need a court case to establish it is 'navigable' under Federal law. – Jon Custer Aug 31 '18 at 20:16
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Don't violate Zebra Mussel restrictions!!!

There are lots of lakes in Minnesota, and many of them are connected by streams. Its is great to paddle between them in a canoe, you can go tens of miles through dozens of lakes if you have the time and back strength.

That being said, some lake have zebra mussels, and some don't. Minnesota DNR has restrictions about moving boats from some lakes to other lakes based on the presence of zebra mussels. Its technically illegal; though as a canoer there is basically no chance you would get caught, and I don't imagine the penalties are very steep even if you do.

The same restrictions due to mussels probably apply to many states. I know they used to in Colorado, but I think they've lost by now and pretty much all the lakes in the Front Range are invaded. Anyways, watch out for mussels, and please don't spread them through carelessness and apathy.

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    They're still adamant about protecting against zebra mussels in Colorado - at least at some lakes. – nasch Sep 2 '18 at 1:14
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No.

Water use, like everything else in the US, is a patchwork of Federal, State, and Local regulations plus quasi-legal muscle. Multiple overlapping laws and agencies can apply at each level. Here's some examples in my home state of Oregon.

Oswego Lake

In Oregon ORS 537.110 flatly states "All water within the state from all sources of water supply belongs to the public." and Weise v. Smith (1869) upheld that "Every person has an undoubted right to use a public highway, whether upon land or water, for all legitimate purposes of trade and transportation." Case closed, anyone can use waterways, right?

Well...

The Lake Oswego Corporation likes to claim it owns Oswego Lake and the Lake Oswego City Council claims it can bar anyone entry. While the corporation does own the lakebed, the Oregon Attorney General says they don't own the water, it's owned by the public and the public has a right to access. Lake Oswego Corporation says that only applies to navigable waterways and according to the Federal Water Resources Development Act the lake is not navigable. Police have made it clear they consider the lake public and are not going to pursue charges against anyone using the lake.

This whole mess is currently being adjudicated by the Oregon Supreme Court. If you're interested in the legal issues surrounding public waterway use in the US, that case will provide ample reading.

Rogue River

While the Rogue River lies entirely inside Oregon, portions are managed by the US Forest Service, US Bureau of Reclamation, and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Each have their own rules. For example, the Wild section of the Rogue River is managed by BLM and requires a permit during certain parts of the year.

7

As mentioned in the answer provided by Charlie Brumbaugh, many states use the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) to define the limits of state control. The images below from the American Water Works Association publication entitled Understanding the Proposed Definition of the Waters of the United States help illustrate what this means:

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