Water rights making waves

Lawmaker considering state authority on future allocations

— A Western Slope lawmaker is considering legislation that would give the state of Colorado authority over all future water rights.

State Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus and chairman of the Senate's Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said Friday he might propose a bill in 2008 that would essentially place an asterisk on water rights acquired in Colorado after the bill is signed into law. Such a bill would be intended to ensure that state officials have the first priority to allocate Colorado water if storage levels - in reservoirs such as Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border and supplies water for more than 20 million people in the Southwest - drop below a certain level.

"We're having those discussions," Isgar said of such a bill. "I've been talking about it for a couple years, and others have, too. : The situation we have today is that people file on rivers based on just what's available in that river : without recognizing what, really, the No. 1 right is."

Isgar said the "No. 1 water right" in Colorado is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocates water to seven states in the Colorado River Basin and Mexico. The compact requires the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to send a designated amount of water - 75 million acre-feet during any 10-year period - to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

"That affects every river, stream and tributary in the (Colorado River) system," Isgar said of the compact. "We can no longer move ahead ignoring that No. 1 water right."

Steamboat Springs attorney Tom Sharp has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977 and chairs the Yampa/White roundtable group, which guides state water action and funding in Northwest Colorado.

Sharp said Friday that "given the drought conditions we have had over the last seven years, there has been a heightened level of concern about the remaining water availability under the compact for Colorado."

But despite that concern, Sharp said a bill such as Isgar's would likely drive future water owners to purchase older, unconditional water rights rather than new ones that the state could override.

"It would make agriculture more of a target, which we have not really seen in western Colorado, but they have really seen it in the South Platte and Arkansas" river basins, Sharp said. "It could generate a lot of in-fighting even among users on the Western Slope, and from the perspective of the Yampa Valley, we have a lot of concerns about that."

Sharp said if the Lower Basin states "triggered a curtailment in the Upper Basin" - in other words, demanded their allocated water in a time of shortage, thus cutting off some current water uses in the Upper Basin - water users on the Yampa River would be "in a difficult and troubled position."

"Virtually all of our storage and industrial development is very junior in priority," Sharp said, describing local water rights that were filed years, if not decades, after water rights in other areas of Colorado and the Upper Basin.

Sharp and Isgar acknowledged that state water officials currently are struggling to determine how to even administer a curtailment from the Lower Basin in the event of a shortage. The Colorado Water Conservation Board currently is conducting a study to determine how much water is, in fact, available to meet obligations of the 1922 compact.

Isgar said while he does not yet have draft language for a 2008 water bill, there "is a fairly good (chance) that we will come forward with something, letting people know that water rights could be conditioned in the future, based on some criteria."

"I'm serious about having this debate and having this discussion," Isgar continued. "I think it's something we have to do."

The Interbasin Compact Committee, which guides water use and policy across Colorado, meets in Glenwood Springs today.

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