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Landmark Colorado Water Rights Bill

Water bill better late than never

By
Charlie Meyers - article published 4/30/08 in the Denver Post


In the celebration gushing down from the landmark water law revision signed by Gov. Bill Ritter April 21, a question still hangs in the air like mist from a waterfall. In a supposedly progressive state such as Colorado, what took so long?

On second thought, let's make that a couple questions. How long is it going to take to advance other initiatives to protect our streams and other aspects of our wildlife resource?

HB 1280, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, stands as perhaps the most important piece of environmental legislation of the past decade, maybe longer.

It corrects a nonsensical arrangement in place for the better part of a century and a half, whereby water rights holders were forced to remove precious water from streams whether they wanted to or not. Under this use-it-or-lose-it mandate, streams sometimes were de-watered, with predictable loss of fish and other aquatic creatures.

Now, with the new law and a shuffling of priorities by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, farmers and ranchers can authorize leases or donations that keep their water in the river. This should end, or at least sharply reduce, the conditions that caused fish kills on certain rivers, either from a total lack of water or dangerously elevated temperature from low flows.

This win-win agreement allows those who own the water to profit from leasing it to the board rather than spilling it out where it isn't needed. While it's too early to tell what the total impact of the measure might be, it doesn't take a stretch to know that every drop is better than none at all.

"We hope to work with willing landowners sooner than later and show this as a success story, so we can advance other parts of our water package," said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, which worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources in framing the bill.

The bill appropriates $1 million annually to pay for acquisition and costs involved with the complex transfer of water rights. A separate measure providing an added $500,000 to assist threatened native species, where needed, is nearing a successful tour through the legislature.

Nickum explained that rights transfers must negotiate a tricky, and often expensive, path through water court; the fund will help defer these expenses, with a certain amount left over to pay for key leases.

The trick, Nickum said, is targeting watersheds where the water will do the most good, places where de-watering historically has caused stress to the aquatic environment.

"We want to be smart about getting the best bang for the buck from this program."

TU wants to advance the final element in its "Healthy Rivers" package in the 2009 legislative session, this to provide a tax credit for landowners willing to donate water for stream in-flow. The measure failed in 2009, but Nickum has high hopes for a reprise.

Despite such gains on the wildlife resource front, key legislative hurdles remain. An alteration for the ages would be to return the affairs of wildlife and outdoor recreation to legislative committees shaped specifically to these needs.

That was the arrangement until just such a committee was hijacked by commercial interests more than 30 years ago. Wildlife matters generally have received short shrift, even hostile treatment, ever since. It's time for that to change.
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