Rio Grande National Forest federal reserved water right decree a “huge success story” — The Pueblo Chieftain

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Few things heighten the blood pressure of water users like a federal reserved water right.

Around the American West they’ve been used to secure water supplies for Indian reservations, national parks and other federal lands, occasionally overturning the pecking order defined in water law by the maxim “first in time, first in right.”

But local water users in the San Luis Valley have spent the last couple of months urging the Rio Grande National Forest to protect one that’s believed to be the only one of its kind ever granted to an entire national forest.

“It’s a huge success story, not only for the federal agency, but for the water users in the San Luis Valley,” said Travis Smith, who represents the region on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Local groups and forest officials spent more than two decades negotiating the decree that protects in-stream flows on the 1.9 million-acre national forest before hammering out an agreement in 2000.

The decree established 303 quantification points on the headwaters of streams and rivers in the eastern San Juan and La Garita mountains and the northern Sangre de Cristos.

Each quantification point includes minimum high flows and maximum high flows that vary depending on the time of year.

The in-stream flows, which don’t involve the removal or consumption of any water, are designed to protect stream function and fish habitat.

The decree also gave forest officials the right to an unspecified amount for fighting fires.

But the upcoming revision of the forest’s management plan has prompted the federal agency to examine its existing management practices — including those for water — and collect public opinion on whether change is needed.

The plan-revision process is expected to last four years, but U.S. Forest Service officials want the feedback before they begin devising management alternatives later this year.

Toward that end, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, a 21-member panel representing users from around the valley, voted earlier this month to submit comments calling for the decree to stay the same.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District followed with a similar vote Tuesday.

Such consensus would have seemed unlikely in the 1970s when the Forest Service began seeking federal reserved rights for in-stream flows at water courts around the state.

The trials for those efforts in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins were sprawling affairs with each ending up in the Colorado Supreme Court before being sent back to their respective trial courts.

Neither water court, in the end, granted in-stream-flow rights to the national forests in those basins.

And, initially, there was plenty of opposition in the Rio Grande Basin as 35 parties filed objections to the Forest Service’s filing.

Steve Vandiver is director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District but he was involved in negotiations for the Rio Grande’s decree as the division engineer at the time.

He said the lack of development in the headwaters of the Rio Grande compared to other river basins made it much easier to reach a deal.

“If you look at the other basins, there’s a lot of private ground in and above the forest,” he said. “If you’re Vail, or you’re Aspen or Copper Mountain, you don’t want a dedicated flow below you that has to be met every day.”

The decree signed by Judge Robert Ogburn mirrors Vandiver’s point, noting that there are only four large reservoirs and 181 other water rights located on or upstream of Forest Service lands.

Still, local water organizations secured important concessions in the decree.

The priority date for the forest’s water right was pegged at 1999, even though the lands covered by the decree were brought into the national forest between 1902 and 1938.

Another point in the agreement holds that if the Forest Service impeded on the exercise of other water rights or increased its stream flows through the use of its land-use authority, the decree could be reopened.

Jim Webb, who served as forest supervisor for the Rio Grande at the time of the decree, credited Vandiver and other local water leaders at the time for being forward thinking. “There was a high degree of trust,” he told The Chieftain in a phone interview.

Moreover, he said the failed efforts by American Water Development Inc. and Stockman’s Water Co. to take water out of the valley made water managers more amenable to locking down in-stream flows on the forest.

He, like Vandiver, wants the decree left untouched, adding that there’s no unclaimed water left on the forest to increase the in-stream flows or become available for downstream users.

He also doesn’t want to see anyone mess with the decree because of the impact it would have on the forest’s relationships with its neighbors in the valley.

“Politically, it would be a bomb,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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