Ending a Strange Discriminatory Practice on our Lakes and Waterways

March 21, 2017

By Rep. Kim Ransom

An unlikely issue is taking flight this year at the Colorado State Capitol – access for seaplanes to state-controlled waters.

For Colorado – a land-locked state – this may seem a rather odd issue. But Colorado is home to a substantial number of large, beautiful lakes in state parks, which could be attractive to the nation’s seaplane pilots and help bring tourism and other aviation related dollars into the state – were it not for state law.

What makes this legal prohibition particularly startling is that Colorado is the only state that does not allow these aircraft to land in their waters. You read that right. All 49 other states grant seaplanes the freedom to access public waters like other motorized users. Colorado is discriminating against an entire class of water users, limiting the right of seaplane owners to fully enjoy their property in the state, and infringing on their right to access public waters.

Initially, the prohibition was justified on the grounds of safety and security; following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, virtually all forms of air travel in the nation were severely restricted, and seaplanes were no exception. However, most every state reevaluated its laws and realized there were better ways to combat terrorism than by grounding American citizens. Safety concerns have also been addressed, as experience demonstrates that the training, regulations, and industry procedures that pilots were subject to have resulted in an exceptional safety record, with a major safety study recording only three seaplane-on- boat incidents over a 13-year period (1983-1995). By comparison, in a single year 960 boat-on-boat accidents were recorded.

With safety and security concerns addressed, the State of Colorado’s prohibition against seaplanes now rests on the threat of aquatic invasive species – in particular the Quagga and Zebra Mussels. The threat of these nuisance species to waters and water infrastructure is, to be fair, a real one. Introduced to the United States in the late 1980’s by water carried in container ships headed to the Great Lakes from Northern Europe, these pernicious mussels quickly spread throughout the States, mainly via boats. From the Great Lakes they crossed to the eastern U.S., clogging pipes and wreaking havoc on waterworks. Since that time, extensive efforts have focused on limiting and preventing the spread of these species in the west. This included an education campaign directed toward boat owners and inspection protocols.

Colorado regulators have used the quagga- and- zebra mussel threat as their reason to prohibit seaplane access. However, seaplanes have never been identified as a principal avenue for the transfer of these species. There has not been a single documented case of a seaplane introducing an invasive mussel to any water, and in fact, some of the states in which seaplanes are most active and least restricted – Alaska, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming – remain free of the aquatic scourge. A real study has never been conducted, but some scientific data suggest that part of the reason may be that these mussels cannot survive in-flight conditions where they become dehydrated (the mussels die if desiccated beyond 30%) – something likely to happen when hanging onto outboard pontoons at 100 mph. Despite the reduced risk that seaplanes represent, the seaplane community, as a responsible user of waterways, has been deeply involved and proactive in nationwide Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) prevention programs, including an intensive partnership with the “100th Meridian” initiative, a program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The community has developed an extremely successful inspection and decontamination protocol, including educating and certifying seaplane pilots to recognize the hazard.

And yet, Colorado maintains its ban. Efforts by the state’s seaplane community to simply sit down with state officials to work out an acceptable protocol for ANS mitigation have been met with deaf ears and stubborn resistance. At issue seems to be the state government’s refusal to relinquish any control over the inspection process by giving pilots a portion of the responsibility to inspect their own planes, and by trusting them to follow through on the flight plans they have filed after inspection at an airport.

Because attempts to work out any remaining differences with the bureaucracy in pursuit of the restoration of their rights have proven futile, the seaplane community in Colorado is now pursuing the legislative route. A bill is expected to be introduced, as it was in 2016, to relax Colorado’s ban on seaplanes and to restore to seaplane owners the same treatment afforded other motorized water users. What seems like a common sense, good government fix could prove to be a heavy lift owing to the bureaucracy’s reluctance to bend or share power, and instead restrict the liberty of law-abiding citizens under the auspice of ‘protecting the environment’. Nevertheless, the state’s seaplane community remains hopeful that its own proactive and successful effort to protect the water will be recognized, and that the State of Colorado will join the rest of the nation in treating them fairly.

Rep. Kim Ransom is from Douglas County and represents House District 44.

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