Mississippi Streams Get Greater Protection

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The Mississippi Public Waterways law, Code Section 51-1-4, was amended in the 2008 Regular Legislative Session to better address the environmental damage to streams from those who ride certain prohibited vehicles such as ATVs, 4-wheel drive vehicles or other wheeled or tracked conveyances down the streambeds of public waterways, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Streambed disturbance in public waters has been prohibited for many years and these amendments provide new specific penalties. The amendments include defining the offense as a Class II violation under Code section 49-7-143. This increases the upper limit of the fine for conviction to $500 and offers prosecutors and judges the use of jail time as punishment for offenders who illegally ride down streams, following the meanders and causing damage to the streambed.

Damage to streambeds includes rutting from tires, and the suspension of sediment that then blankets the stream bottom, covering fish eggs and food sources for newly hatched fish and other aquatic animals. The normal and usual fording (crossing) of streams for legitimate agricultural, forestry or recreational purposes is not prohibited.

Additional changes make it illegal for any person to offer permission in exchange for a fee to ride prohibited vehicles down streams that are public waterways. This crime is also a Class II violation. In the past, illegal stream riding has been treated as a form of trespassing and the cooperation of landowners has been necessary. The changes in the law allow sheriffs and conservation officers to act independently when they find it necessary to write citations for violators who ride down the beds of public waters.

These amendments are a recognition that damage occurs to the public fishery resource when people ride vehicles down the beds of streams. Streams in Mississippi that have at least 100 cubic feet per second mean annual flow are public waterways, and most of these streams flow over private land. The public resources meant to be shared by citizens and protected by law are the water itself, the fish and other animals living in it. The law affords a right to fish and engage in water sports, so recreational users can float on the water in boats or tubes, swim, wade and fish in the state’s public waters.  Driving down a streambed with a wheeled vehicle is not a water sport. This activity damages the very public resources that the Public Waterways Law gives access to and is meant to conserve.

The amendments were supported by the Mississippi Forestry Association in partnership with the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. A public education campaign will accompany the change in the law. Changes in people’s behavior can follow a better understanding of the public resources that they as Mississippi citizens enjoy.