R.I.P. Greg Hobbs: “The water ditch is the basis of civilization”

Greg and Bobbie Hobbs

I learned that Greg Hobbs had passed from an email sent out yesterday by Water Education Colorado (reproduced below).

Greg was a friend of Coyote Gulch and I will always be grateful for his encouragement and appreciation of the work I do here on the blog. When our paths would cross he took the time to say hello and catch up a bit and I will miss him dearly.

I’ve published many of his poems and have dozens of his photographs in the archives here.

Red Rocks from Ruby Hill in Denver. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs


We gathered here for farming,
for mining and for trees,
came to work the traplines
and gold upon our knees,
we prayed to God for guidance
and mapped a thousand peaks,
built the gleaming cities
and plugged the wildest creeks.

The Rockies have a hold of us
and of our ancestry,
plains and rivers tell us
there’s granite in the sea,
an ocean where the canyons are,
each rock a history,
Colorado is as old as us
as young as we might be.

Now each of us has had a day
we’ve done our best and worst,
said our share of lying
and placing mankind first,
we’ve but to see that lupine
is the future at our feet
and marmots running sprightly
over Rocky Mountain peaks.

Thunder’s booming sharply
across the plains below,
we see the lightning flashing,
hear the wind begin to blow,
mountains all are burning
in sunset’s awesome glow,
it’s all up there before us
in clouds piled up like snow.

Red Rocks, Justice Greg Hobbs,
Colorado Mother of Rivers, Water Poems at 26
(Colorado Foundation for Water Education 2005)

Will Hobbs, Greg Hobbs, Dan Hobbs, and a string of fish for dinner, Mary Alice Lake, Weminuche Wilderness, 1986 via Greg Hobbs

Here’s an article that I wrote for Colorado Central Magazine on the occasion of his retirement from the Colorado Supreme Court:

Hobbs to Say Adiós to the Colorado Supreme Court

Greg Hobbs is calling it quits after 19 years as the Colorado Supreme Court’s “water expert.”

Early in his career he clerked for the 10th Circuit, worked with David Robbins at the EPA, and worked at the Colorado Attorney General’s office. AG duties included the natural resources area – water quality, water rights and air quality issues. He represented the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy district before forming his own firm, his last stop on the way to the Court.

He told the Colorado Statesman that he always had his eye on the Supreme Court. While serving at the 10th circuit, Judge William Doyle told encouraged him to set his sites on the Supreme Court, saying “They do everything over there.”

When he appointed Hobbs to the court, Governor Roy Romer told him to “get a real tie,” according to the Statesman. A bolo tie, as Hobbs usually wears, didn’t seem to qualify.

The justice is hardworking outside his court duties. He is often asked to speak at conventions and meetings around the state. He is deeply driven to learn about others and to share his knowledge of law and history.

A few years ago, over in Breckenridge, the Summit Daily News reported that Hobbs said, “The water ditch is the basis of civilization.”

His passion is to explain current opportunities and problems within a historical context. He describes himself as a “failed PhD,” having dropped out of a PhD Latin American History program at Columbia University.

One opinion in particular illustrates the importance of history to Hobbs:

The University of Denver Water Law Review honored Justice Hobbs at their annual shindig. Former Justice Mike Bender told attendees about a case where a man had been arrested after police entered and searched his zippered tent in a campground.

In his opinion, Hobbs detailed the history of Coloradans that lived in tents. The plains Indians and their teepees, the miners camps dotted all over the mineral belt and elsewhere, and more than a few homesteaders, also. He said that in Colorado, there is an expectation of privacy when you close up your tent dwelling, and that it is no different from the expectation for a more permanent structure.

The police violated the man’s Fourth Amendment rights by not obtaining a search warrant, he said.

The justice credits luck for his interest in water law. He got in on the ground floor of the environmental movement during the early days of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

He has a deep and abiding respect for Colorado water law.

During his time on the court, there were two interesting cases dealing with the “speculation doctrine” – that is, a water diverter must put the water to beneficial use, not hold on to it and auction it to the highest bidder.

Pagosa Springs Water and Sanitation District was told it was not allowed a 100-year planning horizon. High Plains A&M was denied a change of use – agricultural to municipal and industrial – for lower Arkansas Basin water on the High Line Canal, because they didn’t have any firm customers for the water they were changing.

The Court recognized the Legislature’s legal ability to create whitewater parks as a beneficial use.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable insights that Justice Hobbs realized pertains to environmental flows within Colorado water law:

When Amy Beatie, director of the Colorado Water Trust, was clerking for the justice, she told him that her primary interest was working for the environment. He advised her to go into private practice, learn about the workings of water law, the mechanics and hydrology of diversions, and the art of finding common ground at water court. Then, he said, have faith that there will be a way to work for the environment within the water rights system.

Ms. Beatie paid attention.

Her organization just secured an instream flow right for the Colorado Water Conservation Board on a tributary of the Gunnison River, the Little Cimmaron River. The trust purchased shares of the McKinley ditch and assigned them to the CWCB – the only entity under state law that can hold rights for instream flows.

The water rights are senior and near the confluence with the Gunnison. Therefore, in times of low flows they are capable of calling out diversions above them. Water bypasses the McKinley headgate and stays in the stream for the fish and other critters. Further development of junior water rights won’t affect the arrangement, since the instream flow will always be in line ahead of newer ones.

This agreement and decree were a big deal since they were the first of their kind, with a willing seller, an organization dedicated to finding deals that benefit instream flows, an entity that can legally hold those rights, and an active water rights market.

At this summer’s Martz Conference hosted by the CU law school, Justice Hobbs spoke about Colorado’s water market. Many groups and individuals decry the current state of water in the western U.S. Brad Udall, for example, told attendees at last fall’s Colorado River District Annual Symposium, that we are living with 19th-century laws, 20th-century infrastructure and 21st-century problems.

Hobbs reminded attendees at Martz 2015 that Colorado has the most active water market in the U.S. and it evolved under those 19th-century laws. Colorado water law is there to protect all appropriators and works very well, albeit slowly. Things move along more quickly as case law grows.

The basis of Colorado water law is the “doctrine of prior appropriation,” which is really a doctrine of scarcity, as just about anyone can administer a stream with average or above average flows. The art comes when there are low flows, so the state engineer has the priority system in his toolbox for those dry times.

Greg is also a prolific poet. I’ve published many of his poems over the years on my blog, Coyote Gulch. Here’s one of my favorites:


(Reprinted with permission from
Colorado, Mother of Rivers by Greg Hobbs.)

To each of us
The land, the air, the water,
Mountain, canyon, mesa, plain,
Lightning bolts, clear days with no rain,

At the source of all thirst,
At the source of all thirst-quenching hope,
At the root and core of time and no-time,
The Great Divide Community

Stands astride the backbone of the continent,
Gathering, draining, reflecting, sending forth
A flow so powerful it seeps rhythmically
From within,

Alive to each of us,
To drink, to swim, to grow corn ears
To listen to our children float the streams
Of their own magnificence,

Out of their seeping dreams,
Out of their useful silliness,
Out of their source-mouths
High and pure,

The Great Divide,
You and I, all that lives
And floats and flies and passes through
All we know of why.

Greg has become a friend to me over the years and I already miss him on the court.

He assures me that he will keep writing and speaking. After all, he asserts, “Coloradans love a good story.”

You tell a good story, Greg.

Greg Hobbs. Photo credit: Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Brian Werner, Amy Beatie and Jayla Poppleton, on behalf of the Hobbs Family):

The Colorado water community lost a legend yesterday with the passing of Justice Greg Hobbs. Greg, who would have turned 77 on Dec. 15, passed away peacefully with his family – wife Bobbie, son Dan and daughter Emily – by his side after suffering a pulmonary embolism.

For both the legal and water communities, and really all whose paths crossed his, the loss is heartbreaking. We not only lost one of our most knowledgeable legal minds, but also lost one of our most able and accomplished speakers, teachers, writers and historians. Those who knew Greg understand.

Greg, who first began practicing law in Colorado in 1973, retired as a Colorado Supreme Court Justice in 2015 and continued to share his water expertise and speaking and writing eloquence in a variety of ways.

He was the longstanding Vice-President of Water Education Colorado, an organization he helped create in 2002 and for which he was a tireless advocate and ambassador. For the past 19 years, he served as WEco’s Publications Chair, where he oversaw the publication of its well-known Headwaters magazine and Citizen’s Guide series. He was known to greet each new publication with a celebratory, “This is our best issue yet,” and was always championing the publications’ distribution, even toting boxes around in his trunk so that they were always at the ready. He was also a frequent presenter in WEco programs, mentored numerous individuals through the Water Leaders Program, and provided sound guidance in the organization’s strategic growth and evolution over the years to ensure it stayed true to its nonpartisan mission.

In recent years Greg served as a senior water judge working as a mediator for water rights cases and continued to mentor current and future water lawyers with his knowledge of the legal nuances of Colorado’s water rights system. He taught a water court practice seminar and continued to write and speak about all matters water.

Greg wrote extensively, whether about the legal intricacies of water or his beloved poetry. He authored a number of books, the most recent of which was published in 2020 entitled Confluence: The Story of Greeley Water, which he co-authored with Michael Welsh.

During his nearly two decades on the bench, he authored more than 250 majority opinions, many of which dealt with water law. He was an exceptional jurist, principled and deliberate, noting that every word in every opinion mattered. As a perfect reflection of his generous spirit, he hired nearly 60 law clerks over his time on the bench, and ensured that they all knew each other, supported each other professionally, and treated each other like family. He always talked about how proud he was of his clerks and where they are now, many of whom, like him chose careers as public servants.

Greg’s early legal career included stops with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for two years beginning in 1973, followed by nearly four years with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in the Natural Resources Section, where he became a leader in environmental law specializing in air and water quality issues.

In 1979, he became a partner with Davis, Graham and Stubbs and soon after the principal counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, where he became well-known for his advocacy and protection of Northern Water’s water rights. In 1992, he helped form the law firm of Hobbs, Trout and Raley with two other well-known water lawyers – Bob Trout and Bennett Raley.

In 1996, Gov. Roy Romer appointed him to the Colorado Supreme Court where he took his water knowledge to an even higher level. Greg was a staunch supporter of Colorado’s system of water rights and wrote extensively and spoke often of his support for the unique water law system that has evolved since the state was created in 1876. He had a studied and nuanced approach to the prior appropriation system and defended it against those who felt it no longer suited Colorado.

Greg did his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. After Notre Dame, he attended Columbia University to study Latin American history. Following their 1967 wedding, Greg and Bobbie joined the Peace Corps, moving to Colombia. The couple returned in 1968 and had Dan. Emily followed in 1971.

Greg spent his early years of family life in law school at Berkeley Law, completing his degree in 1971. He then clerked for Judge William Edward Doyle of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, a critical part of his career and his interest in the bench. In 1973, the Hobbs family returned to Denver and made it their home for good.

There will be a celebration of Greg’s life at a later, more COVID-safe time. The family asks that in lieu of flowers donations be made to Water Education Colorado. You can donate in Greg’s memory online at http://wateredco.org/greg-hobbs-memoriam.

Or, mail a check with your donation to:
Water Education Colorado
1600 N Downing St., Suite 200
Denver, CO 80218

Please include Greg’s name in the check memo line.

Now for a gallery of photos of and by Greg Hobbs from the archives.

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