FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more information contact: Drew Peternell 303-440-2937
COLORADO SUPREME COURT RULES IN FAVOR OF TU IN DRY GULCH CASE
Decision sets precedent for municipal water systems throughout Colorado
Boulder, CO – The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Trout Unlimited (TU) in a case that challenged water rights for a proposed municipal water system for Archuleta County in southwestern Colorado. The ruling recognizes legal limitations on the ability of water providers across the state to acquire water rights to serve future population growth.
In December of 2004, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and the San Juan Water Conservancy District filed a joint application with the Colorado water court for conditional water rights for the Dry Gulch Reservoir and Pumping Station. Under the application, the reservoir, which would be constructed on Dry Gulch, a small tributary to the San Juan River, would store 35,000 acre-feet of water and would be filled via a pump and pipeline from the San Juan River. The water districts claimed rights to divert 200 cubic feet of water per second from the San Juan as well as storage rights of 35,000 acre-feet and a refill right of 35,000 acre-feet for the reservoir. The districts claimed the water rights to serve population growth in Archuleta Country through the year 2100.
Concerned that the Dry Gulch system would significantly impact flows on the San Juan River and its population of trout, Trout Unlimited challenged the districts’ water rights application, arguing that the districts did not need the amount of water they claimed. The water court ruled in favor of the water districts, and TU appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, alleging that the districts were claiming the water for speculative purposes.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the water court and remanded the case, instructing the water court to reevaluate the districts’ future water needs.
“Today’s decision by the Colorado Supreme Court is significant not only because it will help to protect the San Juan River, but because it establishes a precedent throughout Colorado that municipal water providers cannot claim water rights for which they do not have a clear demonstrable need,” said Drew Peternell, the attorney for TU who handled the case.
The Supreme Court found that Colorado law requires efficient water management and regard for environmental concerns. The Court ruled that municipal water providers are only entitled to water rights in amounts that are consistent with their reasonably anticipated requirements based on projections of population growth within their service areas. The Supreme Court instructed the water courts, in determining the amount of water to which a municipality is entitled for future growth, to limit water rights to a reasonable water supply planning period, to require population projections to be substantiated, and to consider the effect of water conservation on future water demands.
“This decision is especially significant in the fact that the Supreme Court recognized the potential of water conservation as a means of limiting water demand,” said Peternell. “From now on, municipal water providers that claim water rights for future growth will have to account for the reductions in demand that would result from water conservation.”
Several of Colorado’s largest municipal water providers were concerned about Trout Unlimited’s appeal. Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs all filed briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and San Juan Water Conservancy District. They argued that cities should be afforded broad deference in appropriating water rights. The Supreme Court rejected that argument.