Hoping for the Best, Planning for the Worst: Water Rights in Colorado

By EMILY KRESSLEY

  What’s a Colorado College kid’s favorite accessory? Ranked just ahead of Birkenstocks or Chacos, finds from the Arc Thrift  Store, and anything Patagonia, is the glorious Nalgene. 

  Perhaps you’re more of a Hydroflask person yourself, but when it comes down to it, most students are decked out with some kind of multiple-use, liquid-holding vessel. Sure, blame it on the altitude. And unless you’re some masochist who enjoys the taste of whatever’s in that bottle weeks after that liquid ceases to exist there, your water bottle is probably full of water. But where does this water come from? The fancy filtered water fountains, duh. 

  In truth, water’s journey and management in an arid Southwestern state like Colorado is far more complex and precarious than in the riparian East Coast and upper Northwest reaches of the country. Within CC’s student body population, over half of us hail from areas east of the 98th meridian, the longitudinal divide of humid and arid climates in the lower 48 degrees. The divide also coincides with what water system management method the state is governed by. In general, riparian states go by the riparian doctrine, in which property rights are tied to water rights. In times of drought, water use is reduced proportionately and equally. The system is regulated by permits and built on principles of mutual sharing and reasonable use. Lack of water is usually not the problem in riparian states.

In Colorado, as in many other Western states, water is governed by the prior appropriation doctrine. This system is not based on landownership; rather, istates, water is governed by the prior appropriation doctrine. This system is not based on landownership rather by a legally supported beneficial use. Water rights are separate from land rights and must be claimed in court. Today the oldest continuous water right in Colorado dates back to 1852, and is therefore senior to any water rights claimed later. A water right consists of three components to be upheld: appropriation, or claiming it, diverting the water from the source to your property, and putting it to beneficial use which range from domestic, municipal, agricultural, pescatarian, and aesthetic purposes. While there is no hierarchy of beneficial uses, some arguments are harder to uphold in court than others. In times of water scarcity, the prior appropriation system mandates junior rights, rights claimed in more recent years, to stop their use of water until senior rights have been satisfied. This is not a what if situation, rather an increasingly pressing reality. 

What about all the mountains and snowpack? Colorado may seem at an advantage because of its density of peaks and therefore headwaters, the beginning of water’s journey after precipitation, however much of this water is already appropriated through interstate and international compacts and must be delivered. Much of these agreements have to do with the Colorado River which is governed under the “Law of the River.” Water law in Colorado is some of the most complicated, with the state being the only to have a specific water court system. 

In the face of climate change, with consequences such as rising temperature, increased storm intensity, and precipitation variability, all paired with ecological feedback loops, such an essential resource has never felt so precarious. Colorado’s Annual Water Conference met in Steamboat Springs August 20th to 22nd to discuss the state’s water future. The Colorado Water Congress leading the conference is the principle voice in the state’s water community, and so discussion ranged from agriculture policy, to in stream flow programs, to how to fund water plan’s and development. 

 More detailed information can be found on the state’s website, but in a nutshell, the current water plan is projected to cost $3 billion in order to account for the projected doubling of population by 2050. It lays out goals and actions for “a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry.” The web of moving and managing water is managed at a local- to big-city water utility level, culminatingin “the largest civic engagement process in our state’s history.” Key components are supply and demand, management, conservation, storage, education, outreach, and innovation. 

After various niche water topics, the conference ended with a session titled, “The Colorado River: What’s Next? DCPS, Demand Management, 2020 River Operations.” DCPS stands for Drought Contingency Plans, negotiations to avoid a Call on the Colorado River per the 1922 compact between upper and lower basin states. A call — or a cessation of water usage in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah) until lower basin states (California, Nevada, Arizona) get their contractually allotted water — would be disastrous. 

So, back to the water fountains. In Colorado, 80% of the water is concentrated in the West, while only 20% of the population is located there. That means that the East, including as the city of Colorado Springs, has 80% of the population and only 20% of the water. This issue is remedied in part by trans mountain/basin diversions, where water is pumped from the western slope to the Eastern slope to satisfy demand. Colorado has the second fastest growing population in the nation. 

If you’re interested in learning more about water issues in the West and the Springs specifically, CC is leading a three-day, two-night Colorado Water Tour during Block Break 1 through the Office of Sustainability. The tour includes visits to pumps, ranches, and even hot springs and is sure to instill a deeper sense of place. In a new report called the Sustainable Campus Index by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, CC was ranked No. 1, tied with San Francisco University and the University of Connecticut, for water conservation, reuse, and effective rainwater management. 

So if you stopped reading because I offended your Nalgene beverage choice, the main takeaways are that water doesn’t grow on trees and that water management is super complicated. It’s a topic that involves everyone: ranchers, irrigators and agriculturists whose livelihoods are at stake; big businesses and political entities whose money influences the way water tends to flow; and the common citizenz whose lives could be hanging in the balance. We only have so much water, and we all need a share. In the face of climate change, attention and planning are everything in order to avoid the worst situations. And, as tempting as it might be, don’t run through the sprinklers: they’re greywater. 

Emily Kressley

Emily Kressley

Emily, class of 2020, is an environmental policy major originally from Essex, Conn. While she is drawn to Colorado for its mountains and skiing, she has found strong communities within the CC Cutthroat rugby team, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and, of course, The Catalyst staff.

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