Finding the balance between water users |

Finding the balance between water users

Colorado has grappled with how and where to use our limited water supplies since before statehood. Demand for the state’s water supplies has steadily increased, and so, too, have the conflicts. The reason? Water supplies have limits, and changes in flows fluctuate from year to year. One such conflict involves the more traditional out-of-channel uses of water for agriculture, mining and domestic purposes versus the more recent uses of water in-channel for the environment, water-based recreation and tourism. Both types of use are here to stay and both require water to prosper.From the beginning, water in Colorado has been used to irrigate crops, support mining operations and provide drinking water for domestic use. The oldest continuously used water right in Colorado is the 1852 People’s Ditch of San Luis, which is used to irrigate crops in Costilla County. Approximately 85 percent of the water consumed in Colorado is used for agricultural purposes. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the value of all agricultural products sold in 2002 equaled $4.5 billion and agribusiness employs more than 105,000 Coloradans. Agriculture remains an important part of the state’s economy and cultural heritage.Water left in the stream for conservation and recreational purposes also has economic value and increases the quality of life for many of us. Fishing, whitewater recreation and tourism have proven more difficult to quantify compared to traditional uses, but the Colorado Division of Wildlife estimated that in 2002 about $500,000 in direct expenditures was made in the state just on fishing activities. The rafting industry has enjoyed an annual average growth of 12.5 percent since 1988. Statewide, commercial river rafting had an economic impact of $135 million in 2005, with more than half a million paying customers.In 2001, the Colorado General Assembly passed Senate Bill 216, which affirmed the idea that water rights can be held for in-channel recreational water purposes, i.e. “RICDs.” The law limits ownership of such rights to local entities such as water conservancy districts, municipalities, or county governments. The purpose of an RICD is to protect water flows for whitewater parks or other in-channel recreational amenities.A number of communities across the state have filed for RICDs. After a Gunnison case was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, it became clear that the Legislature needed to do some fine-tuning of the existing laws. The Supreme Court went so far as to specifically ask the Legislature for clarification on the issue, so work on SB-037 began.The real issue the General Assembly faced was how to define the amount of water needed for RICD water rights. After many months of work and discussion, the Legislature passed SB-037. The bill strikes a fair deal between the growing needs of recreational uses and the state’s more traditional needs. The bill allows cities to ask for rights for no more than 50 percent of a river’s average historic flow from April to Labor Day, unless cities can demonstrate the need for water during the offseason. The provision is intended to encourage applicants to ask for only what they need to accomplish their recreation goals. The bill also provides more clarity regarding the time period for RICDs, the purposes for which they can be used, and the process for approval by the state.I want to sincerely thank all of the parties that were involved with the drafting of this important legislation: Sen. Jim Isgar took a lead role, as well as the Colorado River Water Conservation District staff, the Northwest Council of Governments Water Quantity/Quality Committee staff, and several members of the recreational community. The combined efforts of these parties serve as an example of how very contentious issues can be addressed and resolved.State Rep. Kathleen Curry, a former manager of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, lives with her family on a ranch in Gunnison County. Her oldest son, Joe, is an avid kayaker and is looking forward to boating and driving a mower this hay season.

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