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A bill to affirm, protect recreational rights to Illinois waters under consideration again

The Narva River and the Ivangorod Fortress, across the river on the Russian side.
Nora Lorek for NPR
The Narva River and the Ivangorod Fortress, across the river on the Russian side.

A bill intended to protect the public’s right to access navigable waters — first introduced in the Illinois House in January — is under consideration again.

The bill's language explains that while the amendment would not change any actual law, it would protect the public's right to access and use any waters that are currently, or have been in the past, used for recreational and commercial purposes.

The Prairie Rivers Network is promoting the bill. Robert Hirschfeld, senior water policy specialist, said it is disappointing to hear of the initial denial of the amendment. He said the issue stems from events in U.S. history that protect the public's right to waterways.

“So, the Northwest Ordinance, right at the end of the 1700s, which brought new territory in the United States, the federal navigation, servitude, and other bodies of federal law grant the public rights to use navigable waters,” he said, “and our position is that the state of Illinois and state agencies have improperly restricted that right.”

The Prairie Rivers Network works to protect water and land resources and collaborates among science, law, and collective action to advocate for a healthy environment in Illinois.

“We're going to continue to fight for the public to have the right to use and enjoy public waterways,” Hirschfeld said. "We've got beautiful rivers, streams and lakes all across the state, and the public should be able to make use of those.”

Hirschfeld said there is a lack of education surrounding the reasons this bill is essential to public rights to waterways in Illinois.

“I think there was some misunderstanding about what the bill is and what it does. I don't think a lot of people necessarily, you know, lawmakers and even people within the state are fully familiar with these federal bodies of law that grant public rights to use these public waterways,” he said, “and so we need to do some work educating lawmakers and policymakers and people in the state about what the law actually is.”

Hirschfeld and the Prairie Rivers Network intend to return the bill to the General Assembly in the next legislative session.

Isabela Nieto is a student reporting intern at WCBU. Isabela is also a student at Bradley University in Peoria.