Which is more important, the public’s enjoyment of healthy streams, or preserving private property rights and agriculture? And do we really have to choose?
These questions swirling around proposed ballot initiatives that assert public rights to Colorado’s water and environment reflect broader tensions between public and private rights that are inherent in our democracy, as well as changing public values in regard to natural resources.
The U.S. Constitution barely mentions water, but the Colorado Constitution has an entire article (16) on “Mining and Irrigation,” which provides the underpinnings of Colorado water law. In summary:
• Water in streams is owned by the public: “The water of every natural stream, not heretofore appropriated, within the state of Colorado, is hereby declared to be the property of the public, and the same is dedicated to the use of the people of the state…”
• At the same time, individuals’ rights to take water out of a stream to use it are assured: “The right to divert the unappropriated waters of any natural stream to beneficial uses shall never be denied.” Further details explain that “priority of appropriation shall give the better right…” In other words, first in time, first in right.
• Rights of way have to be provided to move water from a stream to where it’s needed: “All persons and corporations shall have the right-of-way across public, private and corporate lands for the construction of ditches, canals and flumes for the purpose of conveying water … upon payment of just compensation.”
These provisions reflect the necessity of access to water from streams for life and livelihoods in semi-arid Colorado and, according to legal scholar David Schorr, a desire to prevent that access from being controlled by a privileged few. A very democratic kind of desire.
Over the last 100-plus years, public values related to water have become more complicated. We all still want to drink water and eat food, but water in streams for recreation and a healthy environment have also become high priorities. And sometimes water taken out of streams to serve those long-established values of domestic use, agriculture and industry, and the livelihoods related to them, ends up leaving streams depleted and unhealthy.
The constitution clearly provides for taking water out of streams, but gives no direction about when water should be left in. The General Assembly has passed laws allowing water rights to be filed for environmental and recreational purposes, but most of these rights are very junior to others and vulnerable to going unmet.
Proposed ballot initiatives to establish public rights in water and the environment seek to reverse the priority of these values. Initiative 103, “Public Trust Resources,” which focused on water, was derailed from its track to the ballot by the Supreme Court, but Initiative 89, “Local Government Regulation of Environment,” was cleared for signature collection.
Initiative 89 would amend Colorado’s constitution by asserting that Colorado citizens “have a right to Colorado’s environment, including its clean air, pure water and natural and scenic values.” It directs the state and local governments to protect these resources, and says that when local and state laws conflict, the more restrictive or protective would govern.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Gregory Hobbs argued that the new public right to the environment “would override existing private and publicly held property rights,” and would require state and local officials “to act adversely to the interests of private parties…”
In addition to reflecting the ever-present tension between public and private rights, the dispute also reflects polarization between parties primarily interested in preserving the status quo and those seeking enhanced environmental protections.
Longtime environmental advocate and Vice President of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District Steve Glazer, speaking at the Colorado Water Workshop in Gunnison in June, urged both sides in the conflict to “listen to each other more, and move together instead of apart” in order to find solutions that don’t sacrifice one set of values to serve the other.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.