San Miguel water rights are upheld
A Colorado Supreme Court ruling this week that upheld an instream flow water right in the San Miguel River in Montrose County also is being praised as an important one for the state’s instream flow program as a whole.
The court Monday ruled in favor of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in connection with its process for pursuing the water right for a 17-mile reach of the river. The board sought the right at the urging of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife to preserve habitat for three sensitive fish species — the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub — and for “globally imperiled riparian communities.” A water court approved an instream flow protection of up to 325 cubic feet per second.
The Farmers Water Development Company had argued to the Supreme Court that the CWCB’s action was quasi-judicial, and as a result its notice and comment period failed to follow procedural due process. The high court found instead that the instream flow process is a quasi-legislative one that “concerns the rights of the people of Colorado, with a prospective policy focus on protecting the environment.”
The court’s opinion, written by Justice Allison H. Eid, said the legislature vested the CWCB with the exclusive authority to appropriate instream flows on behalf of state residents, and such an action is a policy determination within the agency’s discretion. The opinion also pointed out that the agency doesn’t decree instream flow rights, but decides whether to seek such a right from water court.
The Western Resource Advocates conservation group, which was a party to the case, called the ruling a landmark decision that will have a bearing on other instream flow applications by the CWCB.
“This is more than just a technicality. It’s about the very nature and strength of the instream flow program,” said WRA staff attorney Rob Harris.
CWCB director James Eklund said the decision affirms the agency’s instream flow program process. Had the court determined that the process is quasi-judicial, the agency would have to follow rigidly spelled-out proceedings involving legal pleadings and procedures, rather than its current system involving a hearing process involving a board, he said.
“Our board gets to ask the kind of questions they want to ask. There’s not as much in the way of getting them to the meat of the issue,” Eklund said. A quasi-judicial process would be more difficult for the agency to follow, he said.
Christopher Cummins, the attorney representing Farmers Water Development Co., could not be reached for comment.
Eklund said the ruling is important because the instream flow program “is the most robust tool that we have as a state to protect streamflows for the environment.”
“It does double duty for us,” he said, because it also protects flows at the state or local level, as opposed to the federal government doing so through Wild and Scenic River designations.
Western Resource Advocates said that, if not for instream flow protections, the fish to be protected in the San Miguel River might require protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Instream flow rights are nonconsumptive, aimed at maintaining minimum flows between points on a stream, or certain levels in natural lakes. According to the CWCB, since 1973 it has appropriated instream rights on more than 1,500 stream segments covering more than 8,500 miles of stream, and 477 lakes.
Eklund said the court ruling provides certainty to everyone involved in the instream flow rights process, including opponents to proposals. “You want to know the rules of the game when you get into it and this opinion helps provide some clarity on that,” he said.
Harris said the ruling will have some bearing on some big fights coming up this year on instream flow proposals, including one that ExxonMobil is challenging involving Yellow Creek in Rio Blanco County.
He noted that when it comes to allocation of water, instream flow rights are junior to rights already in existence before they were decreed. But he said some entities are seeking “carve-outs” that would give priority over instream rights to other water uses that haven’t even been come up with yet, and he objects to making instream rights second-class rights.
“Water rights for instream flows, they deserve a seat at the table like any other water right,” he said.