Written by Alex Solorio, ESLLC 2015-2016
During fall quarter, I took a class called Global Environmental Change. The end project of this course was to make a documentary about an environmental concern for the Denver metropolitan area. My group chose to make a documentary about Colorado water rights: how they came to be and why they are so vital to the development and growth of the Denver area. For this blog post I just wanted to share a little bit about what I learned in that process.
Water law is one of the most complex and specific subsets of law in Colorado. In recent years, it has received large amounts of attention and undergone many changes due to the effect that climate change is having on water scarcity. A combination of climate change and the topography of Colorado cause the state to require very specific and intricate water plans for public and private use.
The Continental Divide plays a major role in dispersing water to different areas of Colorado. Over 80% of the state’s water comes from the western side of the Continental Divide, while over 80% of the state’s population lives on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. This all is due to a phenomenon known as the rain shadow. A rain shadow occurs when an obstacle, such as a mountain range, forces clouds to rise. This drains the cloud of moisture, and by the time the cloud surmounts the mountain range, it no longer holds much precipitation. This causes the first side of the mountain to be flush with precipitation and large swaths of land on the opposite side of the mountains to be in much drier states (the Great Plains).
To learn more about the subject of Colorado water law, my group had the opportunity to interview former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. When we asked him how and why the basis of Colorado water law formed, he responded (keep in mind this was transcribed from a video interview, so some wording may be a bit off):
“When the dry lands [west of the 100th meridian] had to come up with some way to cope with water scarcity, drought, the Common Law of England and the eastern United States, only allowed people owning land along the banks of the stream to divert any water. Right? Couldn’t work out here. Because you had to the take the water out of the streams to wherever you could grow crops. The was the first and highest use, and domestic drinking water—so none of this land could have been settled away from the banks itself anywhere in the west, if Perry water law applied. Which it doesn’t. So that’s how prior appropriation law came to be. We are the mother of rivers: eighteen downstream states and the Republic of Mexico depend on our water and we can only consume 1/3 of it; 2/3 of it we have to deliver out of state because we have nine inter-state compacts and two cases at the U.S. Supreme Court that divide the waters. That’s the law of the United States.”
To keep this post short I’ll stop there, but if you would like either a copy of the full interview or any more information on the subject, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.