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The Current: You can donate your car — why not your water rights too?

James Dilzell
Eagle River Watershed Council
Rivers are workhorses of the West – providing water to numerous industries, sustaining the environment and providing beauty. Isn’t it about time we gave back to them?
Special to the Daily

Use it or lose it.

That is a mantra some may know well here in Colorado, as it pertains to those holding water rights. With water rights, “use it or lose it” refers to the right-holder’s need to use all of their water, or risk losing their right. It’s more complicated than simply losing it, but great for dramatic effect.

Water rights in our state and the arid West have an interesting and colorful history, best summarized and further dramatized by Mark Twain. He said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”



I’m not going to cover the full history and explanation of water rights here, but here’s a quick snapshot:

In 1882, a court case in Colorado established the prior appropriation system to limit conflicts over water. The system creates a right with a date, beneficial use and yearly water quantity to be carried indefinitely with the right. If a water right-holder does not use all of their allocated amount, they may end up on the Decennial Abandonment List. That list, which is released by the Colorado Division of Water Resources every 10 years, summarizes water users at risk of losing their water rights.



So if you know you’re not going to use it, must you lose it? The short answer is no.

Besides their value to wildlife and landscapes, rivers in the West are used for everything from irrigation and agriculture to drinking water and industrial purposes. Many of these uses demand that water be diverted out of the channel – sometimes returning to the stream, but occasionally being permanently removed through consumptive uses, or uses in which water is not recovered. In Colorado, our rivers stimulate the economy to the tune of $9 Billion from river recreation and related activities, so it is favorable to keep water flowing through them.

In 1973, Colorado legislators created the Instream Flow Program to “correlate the activities of mankind with some reasonable preservation of the natural environment” — ultimately providing a benefit to Colorado rivers, associated natural values and the economy.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, can acquire water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment. Since its creation, the ISF Program has protected and restored flows to 9,000 river miles in the state with 2,000 water right appropriations. However, it was considered challenging for the average citizen to navigate.

To streamline this process, the Colorado Water Trust, in partnership with the CWCB, has developed a Request for Water Process for water-right-holders to explore ways to leave “their” water in the river, without jeopardy of losing their water right. Projects that move forward may be permanent or temporary, can include one’s full water right or just a portion and owners may be compensated as well. The process is open to all water rights owners, including agricultural, municipal and industrial, and taking part is an entirely voluntary decision.

Mickey O’Hara, Director of Programs at Colorado Water Trust, says, “The Request for Water Process is intended to be a resource for water users – it allows anyone who owns water rights to confidentially explore their options to use those rights to support healthy flows in their local stream. The voluntary projects we develop with water right owners are very flexible, and they generate benefits for not only rivers, but for water users as well.”

The future of water in the West is not certain, but the demand for water will continue to be strong. As we enter long periods of drought and seasons of dangerously low river flows, such as this fall when the Eagle was running around 65% of normal, we are going to need all of the water we can get to sustain our diverse wildlife, our critical riparian areas and our recreation-based tourism economy.

The 2021 RFW opens in late January, and June 30 is the deadline for all requests. A local presentation is planned for this spring through the Community Water Plan. Please visit erwc.org for updates. For more information about the process, you can visit coloradowatertrust.org/request-for-water.

James Dilzell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org.


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