Colorado Supreme Court justice talks about water in Breckenridge |

Colorado Supreme Court justice talks about water in Breckenridge

Julie Sutor
Breckenridge, CO, Colorado

“The water ditch is the basis of civilization,” Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs told a group of Summit County residents who gathered to hear him speak at Beaver Run in Breckenridge, Colorado, Wednesday.

Hobbs took his audience on a tour of the waters of the Americas, from the agricultural terraces of the Peruvian Andes to ancient reservoirs of Mesa Verde to the irrigated fields of the San Luis Valley, illustrating that water – and the ways we use it, divert it, store it, regulate it and fight over it – shapes human societies.

“They were great civil works people,” Hobbs said of the ancient Incas. “You can’t walk down the great staircase of Machu Picchu without hearing the water sing.”

Hobbs has served as a Colorado Supreme Court Justice since 1996, where he has presided over countless water conflicts. Any time a legal dispute over the precious resource can’t be resolved in one of the state’s seven water courts, it heads to Colorado’s highest court for resolution, where justices navigate the complex legal world of Western water.

Colorado is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River, and two-thirds of the river’s water is legally required to flow to downstream states. As a result, even as Colorado’s population continues to grow, its water use is determined by the snows that feed the river and legal obligations to other Western states.

“The headwaters can’t just take it all and give whatever is left to the other states,” Hobbs said.

Within Colorado, water use is divvied up among users through the doctrine of prior appropriation: The first person or organization to make beneficial use of a given water supply – by irrigating crops or supplying drinking water to a town, for example – owns the senior rights to that water. Subsequent users who tap into the same water source have junior rights. During arid years, when a river can’t meet the needs of all users, the water goes to users with the most senior rights, and junior users must do without.

Most of Colorado’s senior water rights are held by agricultural users, while urban demands continue to grow. And in recent decades, new variables have been added to the state’s water equation: recreational uses like kayaking and fishing that depend on in-stream flows, and environmental concerns over removing vast quantities of water from one river basin and transporting them to another. Furthermore, many of Colorado’s rivers are “overappropriated,” meaning that there are more water rights on paper than there is water in the river.

Given the complex set of legal, physical and environmental constraints in a time of increasing water demand, some significant changes must come in the not-too-distant future, according to Hobbs.

“We’re going to conserve the heck out of water in our municipal systems. And we’re going to make it worthwhile for farmers to lease water to us,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said Colorado’s water conservation has come a long way in recent years, but more extreme measures will likely be needed. For example, in dry years, it may be necessary to prohibit watering yards and landscaping.

Hobbs said that public awareness of Colorado’s water challenges has increased substantially in recent years – a marked change from the days when water law was the province of water attorneys and engineers.

“Now, everybody around the state has taken the view that our watershed is our most precious resource,” Hobbs said.

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

Support Local Journalism