From the Northern Colorado Business Report (Steve Lynn):
One of Colorado’s oldest, most powerful water groups is raising a war chest to battle an initiative that would place the public’s interest in the state’s hallmark rivers and streams ahead of the interests of private water-right owners, changing the state Constitution.
The notion that the public has an inherent interest in free-flowing water is well-established in other states, which embrace what’s known as the “public trust doctrine.”
California, Wisconsin, Montana and New Jersey, for instance, have such a doctrine, according to a 2009 report from the Center for Progressive Reform, a nonprofit policy research organization based in Washington, D.C. In Wisconsin, for example, the public interest in a water source is paramount and a water permit only can be granted if its use does not obstruct navigation, reduce flood-flow capacity or harm the public interest.
This would mark a radical shift from Colorado’s prior appropriation system, which favors individual water rights owners, especially those with older water rights. During drought periods, water is provided to those with senior water rights while those who have junior, or newer, water rights don’t get water.
But the Colorado Water Congress, which represents private water-right owners, contends the Public Trust Doctrine runs counter to state law and 150 years of case law. The legal principle would make rivers and streams public property, superseding water rights of property owners in some cases.
Richard Hamilton, a retired aquatic microbiologist from Fairplay, is behind recent efforts to introduce a ballot initiative to ask voters to enact the public trust doctrine in Colorado. Hamilton and Phillip Doe have tried several times since 1988 to enact a public trust doctrine.
“The state does not now act as a steward of the people’s property,” Hamilton said.
“It goes ahead and decides what is the best interest of everybody and the government makes up its mind as to which of those interests shall supersede the public’s ownership.”
Hamilton said his measure failed last year because the state did not give him enough time to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. He said he does not know whether he will pursue a ballot initiative this year.
The Colorado Water Congress, nonetheless, is spending $325,000 on a campaign to oppose any effort to launch a public trust doctrine initiative. Founded in 1958, the not-for-profit lobbying organization represents water-right owners. The Colorado Water Congress claims an 85 percent “success rate” on state water legislation it endorses, and Colorado governors rarely have signed bills it has opposed.
More Public Trust Doctrine coverage here.