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Commentary and Analysis Regarding Colorado Law

Climate Change Impacts on Colorado Water Users

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Recent fires and high temperatures across the West may have water users wondering what rising temperatures and sustained drought conditions might mean for Colorado water users.  While only time will tell, it’s relevant to note that the summer of 2020 was one of the hottest and driest on record.  The month of August was one of the top ten warmest Augusts on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “August Climate Summary,” with 26 days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 17 days above 95 degrees!  Denver received only 0.35 inches of precipitation in August, which is 1.34 inches below normal, and there were only 5 days total during the month with measurable rainfall at all.

What does this mean for Colorado water users?  Changes in temperature and precipitation can impact snowpack, length of crop seasons and quantities produced, wildfires, and pests, just for starters.  According to the US EPA, snowpack in the western United States has been decreasing since the 50’s, and the amount of snowpack measured in April at Colorado sites specifically has declined by 20-60%, on average.  Diminishing snowpack can mean less spring/summer runoff, which typically provides much of the water needed by agricultural and municipal water users.  Earlier runoff can mean changes in the priority system relied upon by Colorado water users, as many decrees for reservoirs (typically relied on to capture spring runoff for later summer use) have limitations on when such storage can start and when it must stop.  Rising temperatures can also increase evaporation from soil, crops, and storage reservoirs, meaning more water is lost to the air than usual.  Soils may become drier as evaporation rates increase, which can mean they retain more water when there IS precipitation so that less water is ultimately flowing into the state’s stream systems.  Changes to Colorado snowmelt, rainfall, and temperature patterns may also impact Colorado’s farms and ranches.  Increased evaporation can increase irrigation demands and mean that some farms change to dry land farming, which typically decreases crop yields.

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Colorado Water Right Abandonment List

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The State of Colorado prides itself on its system of water management. Situated in the arid American West, a once novel priority system was established for equitable water distribution. This prior appropriation system allows the delivery of water to senior users basing the order of use on priority date, not location or proximity to the water source. This system is aimed at allowing water to flow to its most valuable use, preventing speculation, while maximizing beneficial use. The Decennial Abandonment List represents one of the system's checks to make sure that water stays in use. Kara Godbehere of Lyons Gaddis recently was interviewed by KUNC, Community Radio for Northern Colorado regarding the Abandonment List. Click here for the full article and interview. 

If you have a water right that appears on the Decennial Abandonment List or would like more information on the process, the best course of action is to hire a water professional to defend your right from abandonment. Consider hiring one of the Lyons Gaddis water team for the best results. 

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Colorado River Administration Changes

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The Colorado River serves over 40 million people across seven states and Mexico, and the basin has been experiencing historic drought conditions since 2000, according to the Department of the Interior.  The Upper Colorado River Commission, formed in 1948 to help the “Upper Basin” states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah administer the Colorado River Compact, unanimously agreed Wednesday, December 12, 2018 to enter into three agreements addressing drought contingency planning.  The agreements, in conjunction with a similar set of agreements currently being negotiated between the “Lower Basin” states of California, Nevada, and Arizona, are intended to increase water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.  The Lower Basin states have been given a deadline of January 31, 2019 by the federal government to complete their agreements, or risk federal involvement in the matter. 

The agreements approved by the Upper Basin states address increased collaboration between the states and the Bureau of Reclamation to manage reservoir releases in the basin, increased allowable storage in Lake Powell if such water is available for storage as a result of conservation efforts in the Upper Basin States (Lake Mead is located in the Lower Basin), and increased cooperation between the Upper and Lower Basin states regarding water conservation and increased storage in Lake Mead.

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Use it or Lose it

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“Use it or lose it” is often colloquially used to describe the prior appropriation doctrine for water rights in Colorado.  Nowhere is that phrase more accurate than when it comes to the decennial abandonment list.  CRS § 37-92-401(1)(a) requires the Division Engineer to maintain a tabulation of water rights and priorities in their Water Division, but also to “prepare decennially, no later than July 1, 1990, and each tenth anniversary thereafter, a separate abandonment list comprising all absolute water rights that he or she has determined to have been abandoned in whole or in part and that previously have not been adjudged to have been abandoned.”  The next issuance of this decennial abandonment list will happen in 2020, and there are some important considerations of which water users should be aware before that list is issued.

Water rights can be abandoned in whole or in part.  The Division Engineers office may physically inspect diversion structures and/or diversion records, if kept, to determine if water rights have actively been used over the past ten years.  They may be placed on the abandonment list if they haven’t been used at all, but also if they have only been used in amounts less than the decreed amount. In addition to non-use, the water right owner must intend to abandon the right.  See CRS § 37-92-103(2), also Beaver Park Water, Inc. v. City of Victor, 649 P.2d 300 (Colo. 1982). This is a very important element to note in the abandonment process, as the burden is on the water right owner to show they did not have an intent to abandon, if they wish to have their water rights removed from the list. Pursuant to CRS § 37-92-103(5)(a), any water right owner who wishes to protest inclusion of their water rights on the abandonment list must file a protest no later than “June 30, 1992, or the respective tenth anniversary thereafter” (so for the upcoming 2020 abandonment list, no later than June 30, 2022).  The forms for protesting inclusion of water rights on the abandonment list can be found here: https://www.courts.state.co.us/Forms/Forms_List.cfm?Form_Type_ID=10

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