Groundwater measure stalls in committee

DENVER — A bill to change the way groundwater rights are disputed drew a lot of interest in a House committee Tuesday, but no formal vote.

The measure, SB36, that cleared the Colorado Senate unanimously, got a bit bogged down in the House Judiciary Committee because of lengthy discussions about what it would do.

Under the bill, introduced by GOP Sens. Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Don Coram of Montrose, appeals of groundwater rights decisions by the Colorado Ground Water Commission shouldn’t include new evidence, just like in any normal court appeal.

Scott, and the House sponsors of his bill, Reps. Jenni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, say the current practice that does allow that isn’t fair.

The lawmakers say most disputes pit farmers and ranchers against water developers who are trying to sell water rights for municipal use, something that can be highly profitable.

Those developers often will drag farmers into court, retrying the case at the appellate level using evidence not considered before the commission the first time, supporters of the bill said.

“It is a matter of being out monied,” said Dan Farmer, a member of the commission and a Colorado Springs rancher. “When we win, we don’t win because we’re short $60,000 (in attorneys’ fees). It’s just not possible to continue to operate a farming operation and try to protect your water rights.”

Opponents of the bill say there is nothing wrong with how cases are tried, saying only a few end up being appealed.

Denver water attorney Sheela Stack, who routinely represents municipalities in water disputes, said it isn’t just the farmers and ranchers who see high litigation costs.

“It goes both ways,” she said. “It’s not just a municipality coming into a groundwater district. We are not trying to bleed the farmers dry. All we are doing, what anybody is trying to do is do the maximum utilization of water.”

The commission is the only state agency that has quasi-judicial powers that current law, established about 40 years ago, allows appeals to include new evidence. Disputes are first reviewed by administrative law judges in the State Engineer’s office, an agency under the Colorado Division of Water Resources, and then decided by the commission.


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