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The South Platte quandary
'Fresh ideas' may just not exist
July 8, 2007

We don't envy members of Gov. Bill Ritter's South Platte River Task Force, which held its first meeting not long ago. When he announced their names June 15, the governor said, "Specifically, the task force is to consider whether changes to current water law or policy that will provide relief to junior water users without are any there injuring senior water right holders." What if the answer is "no," as it very well may prove to be? Oh, there is one way to provide relief for farmers whose wells for irrigation have been shut down by the state (they are users" mentioned above). It's to provide more water storage. But that solution is both the "junior water expensive unpopular these days, so we'd be surprised if the task force recommends it. politically and For those who don't follow the intricacies of state water law, "senior water right holders" - who include farmers and urban communities - basically have rights to the water flowing in the river that in many cases date back to before 1900. Many holders of junior water rights are farmers who pump water from wells to use for irrigation, a more recent practice. Trouble is, it's mostly the same water. For a long time, that didn't seem to matter much to the farmers and cities who used surface water from the river, or the on wells. People knew, in a general way, that the use of the wells reduced the river farmers dependent flow, but as long as there was enough water to share, no one looked too hard at either the process by which the state engineer approved wells, or the effects on the river. But in a case involving the Arkansas River Basin, the state Supreme Court ruled in December 2001 that the state didn't have legal authority to do what state engineers had been doing for years. And then when engineer the drought struck hard in 2002, there wasn't enough water to go around. The 2003 legislature passed a bill giving organizations of well users three years to file an acceptable augmentation how they would replace the water they were taking from the surface water users. But as plan showing the droughtthe available water supply shrank and its cost rose. Some didn't make the deadline, and last continued, year hundreds shut down by state order, dooming thousands of acres of crops. of wells were That's the brief version of a very complicated history, but it should be enough to show just how difficult it willa be to come up with solution that permits land once irrigated by wells to be irrigated once again. Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has already said that the task not try to undo either the court decisions or the law that protects the river. That's the right force would attitude: Itincredibly destructive to undermine the state's time-honored doctrine of prior appropriation in would be the useBut then just what are the "fresh ideas" that the task force is supposed to discover? water. of An official with the Colorado Division of Water Resources recently noted,"The old gentlemen's agreements that have now gone away." He's right. But without them, the odds are stacked heavily used to rely on we against the task force. governor's Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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7/9/07 3:40 PM