Colorado Supreme Court upholds San Miguel River instream flows — Telluride Daily Planet

From the Telluride Daily Planet (Mary Slosson):

The CWCB initially decided in 2011 to protect a 17-mile stretch of the San Miguel River stretching from Calamity Draw down to the confluence with the Dolores River in order to prevent water levels from dropping too low for three fish species — the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub — to survive and thrive.

All three are classified by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Division as sensitive species, with human water diversion listed as the main reason for their precarious situation.

“Fundamentally what this case is about is that environmental water rights are going to be treated just the same as other water rights,” said Rob Harris, a staff attorney for conservation group Western Resource Advocates, which filed a supporting brief in the case.

“It’s a model for the West to follow on how to provide that local voice while also creating concrete, substantive protections that keep water in rivers for generations to come,” Harris continued…

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Wildlife requested the instream flow protections in 2008. A district water board upheld the 2011 CWCB vote and that was that, until the Farmers Water Development Company objected. The group said that the CWCB’s actions were quasi-judicial in practice and in violation of the Constitution.

The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed and, in a decision authored by Justice Allison H. Eid, upheld the water board decision by affirming that the CWCB was acting in a quasi-legislative capacity granted it by the state legislature.

“We’re very, very pleased with the ruling,” said Linda Bassi, the chief of the CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section. “It was an important decision for our agency.”

State lawmakers empowered the CWCB in 1973 to use instream flow water rights to protect the environment of streams, rivers and lakes in order to assist imperiled fish and other species and to protect nearby vegetation.

“It’s a big deal for us because the court affirmed that the process my board uses is correct,” Bassi added. “It strengthens our whole program.”

The Colorado high court’s ruling is particularly important for the board in 2015, as several of its proposed instream flow protections have already been challenged. One of the sections in question is along the Dolores River in Montrose and Mesa Counties.

More San Miguel River watershed coverage here.

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