Partial accord reached on Black Canyon rights

Environmental and sportsmen groups, including Trout Unlimited, High Country Citizens Alliance, Western Resource Advocates and others, also signed the agreement, Davis said.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

After four months of contentious negotiation, Gunnison Basin water users, a slate of environmental groups and the state have reached an agreement in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park water rights case.

The agreement, which defines who must yield water rights to Black Canyon National Park, is the next step in resolving a larger case quantifying the park’s 1933 water right.

All the parties in the case agreed to a general subordination, which means that all adjudicated water rights in the Upper Gunnison Basin dating before Nov. 11, 1957, and the first 60,000 acre-feet stored in the Aspinall Unit will never have to yield to a call for water rights by Black Canyon National Park, said Alexandra Davis, Colorado Department of Natural Resources Assistant Director for Water.

“Technically, you can be a 2030 water right — if that pool of 60,000 acre-feet is still available, the Black Canyon cannot call you out,” she said. “If it’s not available, then you would be called out by a Black Canyon call.”

During the negotiations the parties disagreed whether there should be a selective subordination or a general subordination.

“A general subordination is where you step back in line, so if, say, you’re in line at a deli and you’re number two, a general subordination is where you say you’ll be number 50 and the 49 in front of you take food first,” or in this case, water rights first, Davis said.

A selective subordination is when someone else chooses who would yield to Black Canyon and who wouldn’t, regardless of the seniority of the water rights in question.

Many Gunnison Basin water users signed stipulations in 2003 that said the national park’s water rights would yield to the water rights of the Aspinall Unit and others whose rights date between 1933 and 1957.

The state, however, objected to some language in those stipulations.

The new agreement “works for everyone,” said John McClow, attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. “This new agreement provides all the protections of the previous stipulations.”

He said the negotiation was “very difficult, time consuming, (and) took a lot of energy, but in the end everyone was able to reconcile their differences.”

Marc Catlin, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, said he’s pleased with the agreement and harbors no hard feelings toward the state.

“We’re pleased that they did reach an agreement, and that it helps protect our Taylor Park Reservoir water rights above Gunnison, which is a big part of the system,” he said. “If we were to lose the right just for one year to fill it just because of the Black Canyon, it could be really catastrophic.”

Environmental and sportsmen groups, including Trout Unlimited, High Country Citizens Alliance, Western Resource Advocates and others, also signed the agreement, Davis said.

Representatives of those groups were unavailable for comment on Monday.

It’s important to remember the agreement does not constitute a resolution of the larger Black Canyon case, said Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District.

The next step is to return to the table and work with the federal government to reach an agreement about the minimum amount of water that will be allowed to flow in the Gunnison River through Black Canyon National Park.

If that negotiation goes smoothly, Fleming said, “I could see it being finally done within six months.”

But if it doesn’t go smoothly, the case could take years to resolve, he said.