River district to contribute $10,000 for appeal of oil shale water ruling

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The Colorado River Water Conservation District has agreed to help pay for an appeal of a ruling canceling some 140,000 acre feet of upper White River Basin conditional water rights intended largely for potential oil shale development.

The district board decision Tuesday to contribute $10,000 in matching funds toward the legal costs of the appeal came over objections by some owners of property east of Meeker who had prevailed in the Division 6 Water Court this summer.

“Why are we spending our taxpayer money for companies who are showing huge profits?” asked property owner Joe Livingston.

The district board didn’t address that question, but instead acted based on the advice of its general counsel, Peter Fleming. He told the board he thinks the court “got the legal issue wrong” and that he was worried about the precedent it might set.

On July 1, Judge Michael A. O’Hara III, ruled on behalf of property owners who opposed diligence applications by the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District for rights for water projects east of Meeker. The rights date back to the 1960s and early 1970s. They had been appropriated primarily for oil shale and coal, under the expectation that energy companies might eventually proceed with commercial oil shale development and need the water.

Water rights holders in Colorado must prove every six years that they are diligently implementing their rights, or face losing them. O’Hara found that the district’s rights were abandoned because it lacked a quorum when it filed its diligence applications before the 2009 deadline. Five of nine district directors’ terms had expired.

Sarah Klahn, an attorney for Yellow Jacket in the case, told the river district board she thinks the appeal has a good chance of being successful, and that the ruling was based on a technicality.

“It didn’t have anything to do with the facts of the diligence of the water rights,” Klahn said.

Michael Sawyer, who is representing the property owners in the case, said the judge correctly ruled based on state law that a conservancy board must act through a valid majority.

He also said the legal issue is a narrow one with little precedential importance because it’s highly unlikely the same procedural problems would arise again to affect another water rights case.

“From a legal standpoint, I think it can be argued that this is not taxpayer money well-spent,” he told the river district before it voted to support the appeal.


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