Water rights may get clearer for kayak parks

Kayak parks and other recreational water uses will be considered "more fairly" after political changes on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, state water officials said Wednesday.

The appointment this week of a new agency director and the replacement of a board member known for his antipathy toward "non-consumptive uses" marks a turning point in how those proposals will be viewed under Gov. Bill Ritter, according to water officials and advocates.

"We're looking to dramatically change our position," Alexandra Davis, assistant water director for the Division of Natural Resources, told the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments' influential Water Quality and Quantity Committee.

The recreational water rights — first created by state water courts in 1992 and established in law a decade later — are part of the state's seniority-based priority system and require that upstream users allow sufficient amounts of water to flow past.

Under recently retired director Rod Kuharich, the 11-member appointed board often opposed proposals for attractions such as kayak parks sought by more than a dozen towns, ranging from Steamboat Springs to Pueblo.

"Our sense is the last director burned a lot of bridges on the Western Slope, with the environmental community and with the conservation community," Davis said.

Charged with "building those bridges back," Davis said, is Jennifer Gimbel, a water-law expert who was named as the board's new director Tuesday.

Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project director for the Nature Conservancy, took the seat formerly held by rancher Tom Sharp, an outspoken critic of setting aside water for recreation rather than traditional uses, such as agriculture and municipal supplies.

"I think the board lost a lot of credibility in its almost obstinate opposition to the idea that recreational use is a legitimate use of water," said board chairman John Redifer.

Drew Peternell, director of the Colorado Water Project for Trout Unlimited, said the water-conservation board has appeared philosophically reluctant to approve recreational rights in a state where demand exceeds supply.

"The CWCB guards very jealously that authority and historically has gone to great lengths to prevent those from being recognized," he said. "My impression is that things are going to be more friendly."

Summit County Commissioner Tom Long, a water rights authority and fourth-generation rancher, brushed off the suggestion that recreational uses have gotten short shrift from the old guard, noting that procuring any new water right is difficult.

"It does represent a change. I won't deny that," Long said. "But most of the communities over here got (recreational water rights) in spite of the CWCB."

Steve Lipsher: 970-513-9495 or slipsher@denverpost.com