Grounded in the Rockies: Why Colorado remains only state with a ban on seaplanes

CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- In a state known for its love of outdoor recreation, there is one thing you've probably never seen in a Colorado lake: a seaplane.

The Centennial State remains the only one in the country with a ban on seaplanes in state-controlled waters.

The ban was instituted years ago, over concerns that Colorado rivers and lakes were becoming overcrowded and that more needed to be done to protect them from invasive species.

However, local pilots say it's time for a change.

"We believe that the state is missing out on a very good opportunity," says Ray Hawkins.

Hawkins is in charge of the Colorado Seaplane Initiative, a group of pilots looking to bring seaplanes to public lakes and rivers.

The former Air Force pilot first noticed the law in 2011, when he went to renew his flight certification.

"I thought I would add the seaplane rating to my license," he says. "Well, I started looking around in Colorado, and found out not only could I not get the seaplane rating in Colorado, but I couldn't even get a ride in a seaplane in Colorado."

As he continued his research, he found hundreds of licensed seaplane pilots grounded in Colorado.

"There are approximately 800 seaplane pilots who live in Colorado. And no place where they can use their ratings."

For decades, the state has enforced the ban partly as a way to protect scarce water supplies, and to prevent the spread of aquatic hitch-hikers.

As of 2019, there are no waters positive for zebra or quagga mussels in Colorado, according Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Colorado is one of just a handful of states in the country that can claim that.

"It is a legitimate concern," says Hawkins. "But the seaplane is not a major carrier."

Hawkins says boats are a much bigger concern, and says allowing them to use public waters, but not seaplanes, is discriminatory.

"The seaplane is the most environmentally [friendly] watercraft," he says. "As it takes off, it's slamming against the waves, which rips off anything that may attach. The only thing that's left is a little wake as we leave."

Bills to remove the restrictions on seaplanes have failed in recent years.

"We got pretty far with the last one," says Hawkins. "We got through the Senate, but failed in the House. We are hopeful we'll be able to work with the state. We've heard a lot of good words, but have seen no progress."

But there is some excitement growing amid seaplane pilots. The state's first privately-owned seaplane base opened to the public last month outside Ordway.

Pilots are required to perform an aquatic nuisance species inspection prior to arrival at a ground airport. Hawkins believes similar protocols could be used in public lakes.

"It would be caught at a land airport before it goes to the water."

Emails to Colorado Parks and Wildlife were not immediately returned.

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