A modern approach to old water disputes

By The Denver PostArticle Last Updated: 12/01/2007 06:57:32 PM MST

The Colorado Water Conservation Board — the last redoubt of the state's traditional "water buffaloes" — may be moving to embrace 21st century economic and environmental values.

Gov. Bill Ritter named Jennifer Gimbel as the board's new director Tuesday. She served 10 years in the water and natural resources sections of the Colorado Attorney General's office before joining the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2001. Gimbel is expected to be more open to recreational water uses than the man she replaces, recently retired director Rod Kuharich, who often led the board in opposing proposals for recreational uses such as kayak parks. Another board member who scoffed at recreational uses, rancher Tom Sharp, has been replaced by Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project director for The Nature Conservancy.

Water use in Colorado rests on the rule, "First in time, first in right."

Essentially, the first person to put river water to "beneficial use" gains the perpetual right to use that water before later claimants. In times of shortage, such "senior" water users are allowed to use all their allotments while "junior" users get none.

That rule won't change — but the definition of "beneficial use" has been evolving. Originally, it meant to use the water up by irrigating an alfalfa field or a suburban lawn. When environmentalists began saying that minimum stream flows that protected fish and wildlife were themselves a beneficial use, the water buffaloes only harrumphed. Then tourist towns learned they could prosper by luring fishermen, rafters, and other recreational users to vibrant streams. That discovery pitted new economic interests against traditional users and recreational and environmental values are now recognized by law.

Kayakers and anglers don't consume the water they enjoy, so the conflict between uses can sometimes be resolved by regulating when and how water is released before its final consumption. The fact that the Water Conservation Board may make more sophisticated tradeoffs of our liquid gold's uses bodes well for our economy and environment alike.