An Economic Argument for Water Trails

This report is a summary of findings from existing studies, which provide examples of the economic impact of water trails in their respective communities. It is meant to provide a helpful resource to communities interested in learning about the economic benefit water trails have provided for cities and towns in the US.

by River Management Society

Water trails are marked routes on navigable waterways such as rivers, lakes, canals, and coastlines for people using small non-motorized boats such as kayaks, canoes, rafts, and rowboats.

They were not formed to be an economic engine for communities, but rather, were created by environmentalists, conservationists, and recreationalists to make nature accessible and to encourage environmental awareness. They have evolved to be recreational routes on waterways with a network of public access points supported by broad-based community partnerships.

Historically, many towns and urban areas have turned their backs on their rivers due to water quality issues, fear of flooding, and dams. Not surprisingly, communities have not always had systems in place to maintain safe waterside trails, advocate for their use, and educate the public about their value as outdoor amenities. Today, communities are discovering the benefits of water trails and beginning to look to their waterfronts as assets. By sharing meaningful examples of economic benefits of water trails they are learning how they can engage a larger audience (outside of the environmental realm) to create a positive impact in new communities, rediscovered natural spaces, and new businesses.

While their contribution to the growth of outdoor activity has not been measured per se, water trails programs contribute to the health of the outdoor recreation industry. The Outdoor Industry Association ranked outdoor recreation as the third largest industry ($646 billion annual consumer spending) after outpatient healthcare and financial services and insurance ($767 and 780 billion, respectively). The outdoor recreation economy grew 5% during an economic recession from 2005 to 2011 (The Outdoor Recreation Economy, 2012), and paddlesports have increased significantly withinthe outdoor industry arena. Water sports (motorized and non-motorized) contributed $85 billion in spending, $4.8 billion in local and state taxes, and created over 800,000 jobs.

An example of recent recession-related growth in outdoor recreation, Minnesota’s kayak registrations doubled between 2000 and 2005: new boat ownership offered a tremendous opportunity for communities to promote their water trails and provide amenities that draw paddlers to their town (MN Canoe and Kayak Study, 2005).

The 140 million Americans who spent $646 billion on outdoor recreation created $80 billion per year in national, state, and local tax revenues (The Outdoor Recreation Economy, 2012).

Attached document published August 2015

About the Author


River Managment Society (RMS) is a national nonprofit professional organization whose mission is to support professionals who study, protect, and manage North America's rivers. Our roots are in the former Interagency Whitewater Committee (est. 1972) and the 1996 merger of the American River Management Society (est. 1988) and River Federation (est. 1985). Dedicated to holistic river management, our diverse membership includes federal, state, and local agency employees, educators, researchers, consultants, organizations and citizens.

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