New Bill Clarifies Water Uses for Eagle County

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY — Colorado water law received some needed clarification in the 2017 session of the Colorado Legislature.

The legislature, this session, passed a bill in response to the 2015 Colorado Supreme Court decision in the case of St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club LLC. That decision held that direct diversions of water from a river to a private ditch for “aesthetic, recreational and piscatorial” purposes are not “beneficial uses” under state water law.

“Beneficial use” is a much-used term in state water law and originally encompassed primarily to agricultural and municipal uses. That definition has been evolving throughout the years — through both court decisions and legislation — to protect recreational uses, too, and the new legislation makes that clearer.

 

THE DEBATE CONTINUES

According to a summary on the legislature’s website, “The bill provides that the decision in the St. Jude’s Co. case interpreting section 37-92-103 (4) does not apply to previously decreed absolute and conditional water rights or claims pending as of July 15, 2015.”

What this means is that those who hold water rights from a stream can legally divert that water for purposes other than agriculture or municipal use.

The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Democrat K.C. Becker and co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Jerry Sonnenberg. In a statement after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, Becker said the law “provides the needed certainty for water rights holders in Colorado.”

Eagle River Watershed Council Executive Director Holly Loff agreed. In an email, Loff wrote that the group is celebrating the bill’s passage.

“It protects the tools that local governments have at their disposal to protect flows — both recreational and environmental — which were threatened by the broad language in the (Supreme Court) case. Recreational and piscatorial uses are most definitely beneficial and we are happy to see those protected.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 2, 2017.

 

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