- May 19, 2022
This column appeared originally in the Greeley Tribune on Thursday, March 29. Colorado Ballot Proposal Would Confiscate Water Rights by J. Craig Green, PE In this November’s election, voters may be asked to destroy Colorado’s system of water rights. A pair of ballot proposals would confiscate the water rights of cities, water districts, farmers, andREAD MORE
For 150 years, Colorado Water Law has been devel- oped with a healthy respect for property rights – protecting the prior rights to water use established by the hard work of those who came before. Most attempts to centralize water resources in Colorado have failed, although there have been repetitive attempts to implement “Soviet style” statewide water planning in Colorado. The drought of 2002 created a new wave of demands on the Colorado General Assembly to “do something” about water. But many of those demands appear to be based
on little knowledge about how Colorado water law works. Current attacks on private property water rights include proposed county “tariffs” and other restrictions on water transfers, as well as applica- tions of the “public trust doctrine”, and proposed “anti speculation” restrictions on the use of ground- water not subject to the appropriation doctrine.
The subject of water rights in Colorado often generates confusion, anger and hysteria, even among those experienced in dealing with it. According to one old timer, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’. Water’s for fightin’.”
Colorado is notorious for the number of water lawyers it has, and it’s easy to criticize a system of law that generates so much conflict. However, much criticism of this system is based on a poor understanding of how and why it works. Some people believe Colorado should more closely follow the model of other western states where water allocation is more tightly controlled by government, and less by market forces. I argue in this paper that its free market origins and traditions are the strength of Colorado water law, based on protecting private property rights against all comers, public and private. This can work as well for streamflow protection as it has for power plants.