Recreational Water Rights Bill Moves to House
by K.C. Mason
Mar 06, 2006 | 468 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DENVER – Two Western Slope Democrats, including Telluride's state senator, have completed their exchange of legislative hot potatoes – recreational water rights and oil and gas drilling.

District 6 Sen. Jim Isgar of Hesperus won unanimous Senate passage Friday of his Senate Bill 37 to restrict water rights for recreational in-channel diversions, but only after agreeing a day earlier to a substantial amendment from Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, that favored environmentalists and tourist communities.

Under the amended bill, RICD water rights could be used for all kinds of boating, not just kayaks as proposed in the original bill. And the so-called "call threshold," which is the amount of water that would have to be available in the stream before a "call" could be made – was lowered from 90 to 85 percent of the decreed water right.

"It won't ever happen that everyone supports this," Isgar said of the compromise. "There will continue to be those who will never support any restrictions."

Spotting Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison during the debate, Isgar said: "I see the House sponsor in chamber. I wish her luck."

Curry a week earlier obtained House approval and handed off to Isgar what was supposed to be a compromise bill requiring oil and gas companies to compensate surface landowners for rapidly expanding drilling operations.

Within days, however, lobbyists for both the real estate developers and the environmental community were crying foul, claiming the Colorado Oil and Gas Association snuck in an amendment that heavily favors the industry. Both groups now are looking to Isgar for help.

"The conservation community never had an agreement with anyone in the industry about what happened in the committee and on the House floor," said Cathy Carlson, a board member and volunteer lobbyist with the Environmental Coalition.

She said Isgar seemed willing to consider amendments that would clarify what damages to the landowner the oil and gas operators would have to cover.

"Curry and Isgar are clear that (House Bill 1185) covers all damages, but the industry has told us that the language of the bill allows them some reasonable use of the surface without consideration of the landowner," Carlson said, adding that "reasonable use" could include everything from access roads to storage tanks.

The Western Colorado Congress, one of the more vocal advocates of landowners' rights, called a news conference for Monday (after deadline) at the state Capitol with five landowners to tell horror stories in their dealings with drilling operators.

WCC spokesman Matt Sura said if the industry is allowed "reasonable use" of the land without compensation, they will have to pay only for the surface that was damaged.

"Your property could go from a residential to an industrial site and you only get compensated for the earth turned," he said.

Yet another Western Slope group called Colorado Landowners for Fairness is organizing a petition drive that would put the drilling dispute on the ballot for November's general election.

Curry, meanwhile, will have to deal with the lobbyists for the mountain communities and outdoor enthusiasts who see whitewater parks as a catalyst for economic development. About a dozen RICD applications are pending or have been approved statewide.

"Recreational in-channel diversions may sound like they should take a lower precedent than agriculture, municipal and domestic uses, but try telling that to the folks in these communities that rely on this type of recreation for their tourism-based economy," Grossman said.

Isgar said water-based recreation has occurred and will continue to occur without decreed water rights, but that excessive filings have forced lawmakers to put more "sideboards" on the 2001 law that allowed recreational water rights for the first time in Colorado.

"A lot of us feel that we've gone beyond what is needed for recreation," he said. "It's become more of an issue of controlling all the water possible."

Isgar is from a ranching family that holds senior water rights in southwestern Colorado. He said over-appropriating water for recreation could result in the inability to move water from one use to another during times of drought.

"Mountain valleys that currently are irrigated could end up being dried up," he said. "You won't be able to move water even with an interruptible water supply or crop rotation agreement because it would reduce a recreational water right."

Isgar said a "call threshold" ways essential to limiting the RICD water right to what actually is needed for river parks.

"Filings have gone way beyond what is needed for recreation," he said. "It seems the only ways to prevent potential abuse is to put in a call threshold so they only apply for what they really need. It puts the burden on the applicant to make a reasonable application."

A similar bill to restrict RICD water right passed the Senate last year but died in the House.
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