New Colorado law strengthens historical agricultural water uses
CRAIG — A bill that cleared the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support March 4 seeks to resolve an eight-year debate over how ranchers and other water users can maintain their historical water use when dry conditions trigger cutbacks to protect streamflows.
House Bill 1159, which passed the House with a unanimous 63-0 vote and the Senate with a 31-1 vote, authorizes state water officials to confirm historical usages, such as water used for livestock, whether or not it’s held in an official water right. This allows ranchers’ uses to stay first in line for water ahead of the stream protections, known as instream-flow rights.
“It’s really a belt-and-suspenders clarification of existing authority,” said Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which drafted the language for the bill. “I think it’s a good example of when we sit down and pore over these issues, it’s not hard to come up with a fix that protects West Slope water users and provides the state engineer the authority he needs to continue administering them.”
Instream-flow rights, which are held exclusively by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, exist for the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment of streams and lakes “to a reasonable degree.” Most of these date to the 1970s and are junior to most agricultural-water rights under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right.” To date, instream-flow rights protect roughly 9,700 miles of stream in Colorado.
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The debate over historical uses has turned on whether a water user must go to water court to make their pre-existing use official in a decree.
A 2012 drought brought the question to a head when state officials cut off water users on the Elk River in northwestern Colorado in favor of instream-flow rights. Although many ranchers in the area have water rights for irrigation that are senior to the 1977 instream-flow rights and have historically used that water also for their cattle, the state Division of Water Resources determined that livestock watering wasn’t implicit in irrigation rights.
Those without specific rights for stockwatering were left high and dry once the summer irrigation season was deemed over, even though they had used the water for livestock for generations.
“My grandparents bought this piece of land in 1946,” said Krista Monger, a cattle rancher on the Elk River. “We have the records to show we’ve been using (our water) for livestock.”
Stockwatering and irrigation often go hand in hand. During the irrigation season, if a rancher’s livestock drink from the ditches used to irrigate their fields, the use is considered incidental to irrigation. But once the growing season is over and a rancher keeps the water flowing through the ditch for the exclusive purpose of watering their livestock, the use is not covered under irrigation-water rights.
The amount of water typically used for exclusive stockwatering is a fraction of what is used for irrigating, around 80% to 90% less. Some ranchers also use stock ponds, which require a water-storage right.
More than 90,000 irrigation-water rights are held across the state, of which 29,000 specifically name both irrigation and livestock uses. That means the new law could potentially apply to 61,000 water rights, although not all of these are held by ranchers raising livestock. An additional nearly 32,000 water rights are held exclusively for livestock purposes but not irrigation.
The Monger family holds both irrigation- and livestock-water rights to grow hay and to water their 300 cattle. Her family’s rights and diligent record-keeping meant their ditches kept flowing while their neighbors’ ditches were shut down in 2012, highlighting the need for better record-keeping among the region’s irrigators.
But the incident prompted a statewide debate over the meaning of Colorado statute C.R.S. 37-92-102(3)(b), which states that instream-flow rights are subject to pre-existing uses of water, “whether or not previously confirmed by court order or decree.”
The state Department of Natural Resources, home to both the Division of Water Resources and CWCB, argued that when the instream-flow protections were created, lawmakers intended for water users to make their existing use official in a decree. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District argued that the statute clearly precludes the need for a court decree and sought to protect ranchers’ historical usage without requiring them to go to water court.
“The statute says … prior uses would be honored. But they’re saying the statute doesn’t say what the statute says,” said Mike Hogue, former president of the cattlemen’s group.
After years of negotiations, stakeholders agreed on a simple piece of legislation to clarify the state water engineer’s authority “to confirm a claim of an existing use (if it) has not been previously confirmed by court order or decree,” according to the bill summary. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail.
“I do think this is very helpful legislation,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein, who is with the Division of Water Resources. “We had what I’d call an honest disagreement about what the statute meant. My position is if they change the law and give me a place to hang my hat on, that solves the problem.”
However, what the legislation doesn’t resolve — and what is perhaps a bigger Pandora’s box opened by the 2012 incident — is the decision that state water officials made that irrigation rights do not include stockwatering rights. In practice, irrigators around the state, many of whom hold water rights dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, have used irrigation- or agricultural-water rights not to just irrigate their hayfields, but also to water their livestock.
The new distinction means that ranchers with irrigation rights must apply for livestock water rights if they want to protect their usage into the future. Although the new legislation protects a rancher’s stockwatering use from being shut off specifically by an instream-flow right, their stockwater use could still be cut off if another water user makes a call on the river to fulfill a formal water right.
“We all thought that was part of our ag water rights,” said Doug Monger, a Routt County commissioner and a cattle rancher on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, and also uncle to Krista Monger. “It’s a wakeup call for all of us.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.
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