What is a water trail?

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: I'm one of those new planning commissioners you wrote about in your newsletter. The latest term I heard at a meeting that I don't really understand is "water trail." I understand water, and I thought I understood trails, but putting the two together seems odd. Does such a thing really exist, and if so, who uses a water trail for what purpose? Is this a planning issue at all? Help me out here.

Editors Reply: In the last paragraph of our answer, we will illuminate why this probably came up in your planning commission meeting, but first we need to say something about what a water trail is and how they are planned and implemented.

First of all, disassociate the idea of a trail for hiking, walking, or bicycling for the purpose of understanding a water trail, which some people also call a blueway. Indeed, such a trail is linear, but it is simply a suggested route for canoes and kayaks or less commonly for larger boats. Like bike trails, the water trail may include designated trailheads, which are more apt to be called their usual water-related names.

On a water trail map, you would commonly see designations such as boat launches, boat ramps, portage locations, or canoe accesses. Also a water trail map typically alerts users to the existence of lakes, parks, beaches, fisheries, dams, falls, or lock facilities. Any sections that cannot be navigated or that are too dangerous for small craft such as canoes and kayaks need to be clearly marked.

You ask if a water trail is really a planning issue. Usually we think that it is more of a recreational planning issue, much more likely to be planned and executed by a water management district, park district, regional planning commission, regional forestry organization, or regional greenway district or a blueway district conceived of entirely for this purpose. It also is possible that a state, regional, or local tourism commission would be the primary planner of a water trail.

A private association of tourism-oriented businesses also could designate, improve, map, and promote a water trail. One of the four of us who write for this website has been involved personally with such a project. Our experience with it was that eventually there was a need for a governmental entity to help with resolving some problems such as rowdy visitors to the point of needing law enforcement on the weekends, issues with water quality due to a business secretly discharging directly into the stream, and the desire of the businesses to have financial help in maintaining signage and printing and distributing maps.

Just as with hiking/walking and bicycling trails, it is very helpful if the water trail is signed carefully to point out directions, distances, points of interest, and facilities such as restrooms. Temporary signs also may be needed to point out blockages from downed trees, fish kills, or even imminent weather hazards, depending on how elaborate the arrangements for the water trail are.

Many times water trail plans are agreed upon well before all of the amenities actually exist, just as a city plan is prepared before the real estate development indicated by the plan is built. While the streams, rivers, and lakes are already in place of course, amenities and improvements needed to make them safe for larger numbers of recreational canoeists and kayakers often are lacking. Thus a water trails plan would be needed to indicate to all how the streams and adjoining assets are used currently, what risks exist after traffic increases because of the designation of the blueway, and what improvements are essential and which ones are ideal to maximize the recreation and tourism potential of the water trail.

The plan should show estimated construction costs for items such as signs and constructing launch sites or the access roads to them.

Thus far we have been talking about water trails as if their only purpose is recreation. But also be aware that schools, scouting organizations, and outdoors education programs can take advantage of a well-designed water trail as a venue for understanding more about the natural environment. Birders and environmental groups may be natural allies in a water trail project.

We also think that a more concerted effort to point out good routes for canoeing and kayaking will encourage greater participation in those sports and will motivate users toward better stewardship of both the land and the water.

Almost like road plans, water trail plans often show primary routes and less important secondary routes. Usually there is an indication of phasing, showing which stretches already have sufficient infrastructure and a supporting government, district, or association that can install signs and monitor safety almost immediately. Then other desirable routes and improvements will be shown, depending on obstacles that must be overcome, facilities that should be built, or perhaps water quality improvements that will be required over the course of a number of years.

Like other kinds of plans you will encounter as a planning commissioner, property ownership is often an issue. Depending on how your state law treats riparian corridors and on local conditions, you might encounter a substantial amount of private property ownership extending right up to a creek bank. In situations where there is no public recreational ownership already along rivers, streams, and creeks, an entity or collaboration proposing a water trail will have to investigate the issue of property owner rights carefully.

If the water trail will come very near private property boundaries, those owners need to be engaged early in the planning effort. Studies have shown a positive impact on property values if streams are properly maintained and signed, but we guarantee you would encounter some owners who are quite opposed to any such project.

So now that you know what a water trail is, you will not be surprised to learn that usually the sponsors of the blueway will approach municipalities, townships, or counties along the included waterways to ask that the water trail be added to and adopted as part of the local government’s comprehensive plan. This can alert planning officials to ask trail-related questions of developers or property owners seeking development near the water trail facilities. If the trail is incorporated into comprehensive plans, the government then would have the right to consider the impact of proposals on the trail and to include trail-relevant provisions in any conditional use permits or site plan approvals that are issued.

You can read about the Northeastern Illinois regional water trails plan, one of the best examples of such a system, if you like.

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