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Bill seeks tighter regulation of recreational water rights

Cliff Thompson

Battle lines are being drawn over a new bill that seeks to change how state laws define recreation water rights.Battle lines are being drawn over a new bill that seeks to change how state laws define recreation water rights.Those water rights – which the Colorado Supreme Court approved just two years ago – are designed to boost river flows for kayaking and other water sports.State Sen. Jack Taylor, a Steamboat Springs Republican who represents Eagle County, introduced Senate Bill 62, which is wending its way through the Colorado Legislature. It’s a bill Taylor said will clarify the rules governing so-called “recreational in-stream diversions,” which, he says, don’t play by the same rules as other water rights. Both sides claim that if adopted, the bill will change the very fabric of the 135-year-old priority water-rights system that governs Colorado water law.Opponents charge it’s a challenge to the recreation industry in mountain communities, while supporters say the bill is necessary to prevent recreational water rights from infringing on future water use.Vail’s whitewater park on Gore Creek uses the water right to boost flow through the park by 400 cubic feet per second. In high water, it is popular with kayakers who course its twisting currents and standing waves.”This bill would subordinate recreation water rights for future upstream development,” said Glenn Porzak, a water attorney who was instrumental in helping create the rights two years ago. “This is an effort to undercut those water rights and the very purpose for which you get a water right.”Recreational water rights were hotly contested when they were created in Golden, Vail and Breckenridge two years ago. As the population grows and the need for water increases, a balanced approach to controlling water will be needed, Porzak said.”We’ve got to preserve a certain amount for recreation and at the same time have enough so we can serve people who come here to recreate,” he said. “We sell and manage an image here.”Those holding recreational water rights aren’t bound by the same water rules that govern other water users, Taylor said. It boils down to a difference in how Colorado’s complicated water law controls and operates uses of river water. Traditional water rights require water be diverted from a stream and put to “beneficial” use. Those diversions need to be controlled by head gates and other structures that can control the flow of the diversion. Who gets to divert depends on what priority water right they have, based on the date on which the water was claimed.In-stream diversions don’t have physical control structures, Taylor said. They use stream bank “bump-outs” to constrict the stream and river-bottom benches to create standing waves and increase the speed of flow. Without a headgate to control the flow, the recreational water rights don’t have control over their right, like traditional water rights have, Taylor said.Future growth could also be controlled by cities holding recreational water rights, he said. Future growth could also be controlled by cities holding recreational water rights, he said.


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