Colorado Supreme Court rules against private streams |

Colorado Supreme Court rules against private streams

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism
Two men standing on the headgate of the RFC Ditch, which the Roaring Fork Club has shaped into a private fly-fishing stream it calls Spring Creek. The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected an application by the club to secure water rights in the ditch for aesthetic, recreational and piscatorial (fishing) uses. Source: Colorado Supreme Court, case 13SA132.
Contributed photo |

BASALT — The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt is not entitled to new “aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial (fishing)” water rights for a private fly-fishing stream the club created in an existing irrigation ditch.

The court, however, did side with the Roaring Fork Club in a related dispute with its downstream neighbor Reno Cerise, who is a partner in St. Jude’s Co.

In its decision, the court rejected claims from St. Jude’s over access to and management of the irrigation ditch in question, and the court awarded the club attorney’s fees in that aspect of the case.

But a majority of the justices on the court said a prior water-rights decree issued to the club in 2013 by the water court in Glenwood Springs was now invalid because the water was not being put to a lawfully recognized “beneficial use,” which is a keystone of Colorado water law.

“The Club’s proposed uses of the water in question, as expressed in its application, cannot be beneficial … because the only purpose they are offered to serve is the subjective enjoyment of the Club’s private guests,” the court stated. “The flow of water necessary to efficiently produce beauty, excitement or fun cannot even conceptually be quantified.”

If the court had ruled the other way, attorneys for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources told the court it had concerns that using irrigation ditches for private aesthetic purposes could “result in complete depletions of stream reaches for unlimited distances.”

Origins of the case

In 2007 the club applied to divisional water court in Glenwood Springs for formal recognition of a right to divert 21 cubic feet per second from the Roaring Fork River into an existing irrigation ditch for “aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial uses.”

The application for new water rights was in addition to the club’s existing water rights on the ditch, which include an irrigation right.

In its application, the club told the water court that in 1997 it had improved an irrigation ditch — the RFC Ditch — which is 14-to-25 feet wide and can move as much as 45 cubic feet per second of water.

And it said it was now using the ditch, which it dubbed “Spring Creek,” as an “aesthetic and recreational amenity to a golf-course development as well as for fish habitat and as a private fly-fishing stream.”

On its website Tuesday, the Roaring Fork Club states that “fishing around the club property includes private access to eight stocked ponds, a one-mile stretch along the acclaimed Roaring Fork River and the one-mile long Spring Creek, an offshoot of the Fork that flows through the golf course.”

The club straddles 383 acres on either side of the Roaring Fork River just upvalley of downtown Basalt. It has about 550 members and includes 40 privately owned cabins.

“The club’s fishing, non-fishing, golfing and other members and visitors enjoy the scenic beauty that is Spring Creek, as the visual backdrop of the water feature and the sound of higher flowing water combine to create a unique experience for members, cabin owners and guests alike,” wrote an attorney for the club, Scott Miller, of the Basalt law firm of Patrick, Miller and Noto, in a brief to the court.

Miller’s brief also notes that the irrigation ditch, now a private fly-fishing stream, includes “pools, riffles, drop structures and spawning beds, all of which enhance the overall aquatic habitat and cold-water trout fishery in Spring Creek, and which require flowing water.”

But in 2013, St. Jude’s, which also uses the RFC Ditch to receive water downstream of the club, appealed the water court’s issuance of a decree to the club for aesthetic uses to the Colorado Supreme Court, which directly hears appeals from divisional water courts around the state.

“Recognition of aesthetics as a beneficial use would effectively function as a policy decision that the visual enhancement of private property is more important than any uses of junior upstream appropriators, and also more important than maintaining streamflow in the natural stream,” St. Jude Co.’s attorney, Gregory Cucarola of Sterling, argued in a recent brief to the Supreme Court.

After review, seven of the justices on the Supreme Court sided with St. Jude’s, at least as far as its water rights arguments went.

“The water court’s judgment decreeing the club’s new appropriative rights must therefore be reversed, and the decree for aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial uses vacated,” the court ruled.

A variety of views

Two justices issued a dissenting opinion in the case.

“The value that Spring Creek creates, as well as the ability to determine the amount of water needed to achieve its purpose, suggests that aesthetic, recreational, and piscatorial uses satisfy the beneficial-use requirement,” the dissenting opinion stated.

The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Monica M. Marquez, who was joined by Justice William W. Hood, III.

The Colorado River District, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, released a statement Monday about the court’s decision from Peter Fleming, the district’s general counsel.

“The River District is disappointed in the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in the St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club case that effectively prohibits any future direct flow rights to divert water from the stream for aesthetic, recreation or piscatorial (fishery) purposes,” Fleming said. “The majority opinion mistakenly characterizes recreational and fishery uses as purely passive uses of water.”

Fleming also said, “The decision will adversely impact the future ability of private landowners to increase the value of their property through the construction of water features.”

Also filing a joint friends-of-the court brief in the St. Jude’s case were Roaring Fork Homeowners Association, Inc., Thomas Bailey, Galloway, Inc., Jackson-Shaw/Taylor River Ranch, LLC, Crystal Creek Homeowners Association, Inc., Charles E. Nearburg and Catamount Development, Inc., and the Flyfisher Group, LLC.

The self-described “ranch owners” told the court that together they own 27,000 acres of land in Colorado.

They argued that “private use of water for piscatorial and aesthetic purposes benefits the public and the appropriator” because private fly-fishing streams benefit local economies and fisheries.

“The economy of western Colorado is changing,” the ranch owners told the court. “More and more ranches are being purchased not just for traditional ranching uses but also for their aesthetics and fish and wildlife values. The resulting increase in land values significantly increases the tax base of local governments and the overall health of local economies.”

They also said that many ranch owners have “constructed water features on their properties, such as artificial waterfalls, cascades and waterways that greatly enhance the aesthetics and value of a property.”

The ranchers also argue that if private streams are valuable to a landowner, then they are “beneficial” under state water law.

“Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, beneficial use is principally in the eye of the (water) appropriator,” the brief states.

On the other side of the issue were Pitkin County and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, both of which filed “friends of the court” briefs with the Supreme Court against the Roaring Fork Club’s arguments.

“A diversion into a ditch for private piscatorial, recreational, or aesthetic uses is not a statutorily or Supreme Court-approved beneficial use, but has been recognized by various water courts in unappealed decrees,” a brief filed by attorneys for the department states.

The department’s brief also noted that when it comes to the enjoyment of water, a “more is better” factor raises questions about the potential wasting of water.

“’With a “more is better’ duty of water unsupported by scientific evidence, subjective private piscatorial and aesthetic uses can result in complete depletions of stream reaches for unlimited distances to the detriment of the stream and its public piscatorial and aesthetic uses, resulting in waste and inefficiency,“ the department’s brief states.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. More at