From The Mountain Mail (Joe Stone):
The 22nd annual Arkansas River Basin Water Forum featured retired Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Gregory Hobbs as keynote speaker Thursday at Salida SteamPlant.
Terry Scanga, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District general manager, introduced Hobbs as “a mentor and teacher to the water community,” praising Hobbs’ talent for writing clearly and succinctly about Colorado water complexities.
Hobbs’ talk painted a historical picture of Colorado water management beginning with the Ancestral Puebloans who lived at Mesa Verde and Hovenweep, where they constructed water storage reservoirs using primitive wood and stone tools.
Hobbs’ talk included slides from his collection of historical maps that show the evolution of various countries and territories in what is now the western United States, including a watershed map created by famous explorer John Wesley Powell.
Hobbs said Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would have prevented trans-basin water diversion, forcing water users to conserve the scarce resource in the arid West.
Hobbs shared a wealth of historical information, noting that federal legislation in the 1860s separated water from the land and allowed water to be taken from one place to be put to beneficial use in another location.
This change from riparian water rights of the eastern U.S. laid the foundation for Colorado’s system of Prior Appropriation, summarized as “First in time, first in right,” Hobbs said.
Key to this system is the fact that the Colorado Constitution established water as a public resource in 1876, Hobbs said, adding that rights to use water are a special type of property right.
The Prior Appropriation system allows the transfer of water rights, and Hobbs said senior water rights are the most valuable property rights in Colorado.
Hobbs said the system has worked for more than 100 years, and recent efforts to subject water rights to the free market system would have devastating consequences.
When it comes to water, Hobbs said, “Colorado has a workable fabric of law and governance that has stood the test of time.”