March 2008 RTCA header
Aqueous Solution: Water Trails

Captain John Smith Water Trail

Washington Water Trails Association

Water Trail Frequently Asked Questions

What are Water Trails, and Why is Their Popularity Growing?

Water trails are networks of points along the water (such as rivers or lakes) that people can access using human-powered boats. But to Rivers & Trails staffer Jerry Willis, they're also the lever that can change a community's perception about its local waterways, particularly those in urban areas that have been subject to neglect and pollution over the years. "Water trails have become a wonderful strategy to get people to look at these rivers in a different way," he says. "It becomes a foot in the door, and we can start talking about creating access points for people to get to the river, stream bank restoration, and taking out invasive species and replanting with native species. If you can bring people to the edge of the river, you'll create a new generation of stewards for these forgotten resources."

In the last five years, water trails have been growing in popularity-partly because of their ability to galvanize a community, and partly because they often don't require major infrastructure investments, except perhaps for bathrooms or camping facilities. Notes Sarah Krueger, Outreach Director of the Washington Water Trails Association, "Often, it's a matter of packaging what exists. There might already be a collection of access points or facilities along a stretch of river or lake and they haven't been put together, or they're owned by different entities, or maybe there's not cohesive mapping. A water trail is also about getting information out to people and letting them know what exists."

Water trails can serve educational, as well as recreational, purposes. Krueger cites as a favorite the Captain John Smith Water Trail along the Chesapeake Bay--recently designated as a national historic trail--which features interpretive buoys you can paddle up to in a kayak or canoe, and you can dial a number on your cellphone and receive detailed information about the spot you're visiting.

What are the Challenges in Establishing Urban Water Trails?

Often, the hardest part of establishing water trails in an urban area is the psychological barrier: people are skeptical that their local eyesore can be turned into a recreational destination. Another related challenge is the physical barriers that have frequently been erected, from highways to railroad lines, making river access difficult.

Once access points have been identified, securing rights to them can be tricky, from researching titles and establishing ownership to dealing with neighbors who aren't thrilled that their property will now be adjacent to public right-of-ways. Notes Krueger, "Especially for urban trails, whether water or land, public access raises concerns, so you want to be proactive and emphasize the benefits to the greater community and listen carefully."

How Can I Kickstart Creation of a Water Trail?

One of the most effective tools in raising interest and support for water trails is holding events. The secret is to create something interesting and memorable that will lure the media. On the Passaic River in New Jersey, there is an annual Passaic River Paddle Relay, which visits different communities each year and has drawn up to 120 paddlers. In another event, dubbed "The Mayor's Cup," over half a dozen mayors joined the local Congressman in a short race. Such events, says Willis, "are a lot of work, but in the end they have the biggest payoff in terms of visibility."

National Water Trails Conference

A national water trails conference will be held this year from September 16-18 at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington. Topics will include ways to identify partners and stakeholders, issues of public and private property, mapping, facilities creation, and overall best practices. To learn more, contact Washington Water Trails at 206-545-9161.

Let's Work Together

If you're working on restoring a river, building a trail, or making an urban park flourish, we'd love to talk with you about ways we might be able to work together. Please call or email your regional representative today to determine if your project is a good fit. Find more information and previous newsletters here.

Apply for NPS assistance by August 1. Could your project benefit from 1-2 years' staff time and technical assistance from a National Park Service specialist? We want to help you succeed. Download a program application; the deadline is August 1, 2008.

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