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Water Blog

A blog that focuses on legal developments affecting the water community in Colorado and other western states.  We also post news about water rights, water quality, and natural resources.  If you have a suggestion for a post, please contact us.


New amendment to affect development planning

Posted June 25, 2013

Back in 2008, a state law was passed that required developers to prove upfront that they had enough water to supply their entire project.  See C.R.S. § 29-20-301 to -306 (2012).  This statute brought the Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County to a halt; a judge found that Sterling Ranch failed to show it had enough water to sustain the large-scale project.  The 2008 law upset developers who felt the law would force smaller developments, with fewer water-reliant amenities like recreation centers and parks.

However, during this legislative session, the General Assembly passed an amendment to section 29-20-301 (Senate Bill 13-258), which gives developers the ability to phase-in water requirements whenever a development stage of a project is up for approval by a local government entity.  Instead of developers having to show they have enough water in advance, developers now must only prove water availability each time a project enters a new stage of development.  Under section 29-20-301(d), “the stages of the development permit approval process are any of the components, or any combination of the components,” as determined by local government.  The amendment added that none of these stages are intended to constitute a separate development permit approval process under section 29-20-303.  A new term on definitions was also added to section 29-20-103.  Notably, “each application included in the definition of development permit constitutes a stage in the development permit approval process.”

A national and local pattern of groundwater depletion

Posted May 30, 2013

On May 20, the USGS released a report that detailed groundwater depletion in the United States from 1900−2008.  The USGS found that between 1900 and 2008, U.S. groundwater reserves have depleted by a volume of water sufficient to fill Lake Erie twice. 

The USGS studied 40 major aquifer systems including the High Plains (or Ogallala) Aquifer, Dakota Aquifer, western alluvial basins, and deep confined bedrock aquifers like the Black Mesa Aquifer.  Four groundwater systems in Colorado were studied: the High Plains, Dakota, Denver Basin, and San Luis Valley aquifers.  Of those, only the Denver Basin and San Luis Valley aquifers are located exclusively in Colorado.  The USGS found that the High Plains Aquifer experienced a rate of depletion between 2001 and 2008 equal to 32% of the cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century!  The greatest depletions occurred in Texas.  The total depletion of the Dakota Aquifer was determined to be 20.3 cubic kilometers (km3) between 1900 and 2008, or 16,457,478 acre-feet.  (This volume is equal to approximately 400,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.)  The Dakota Aquifer was analyzed separately from the Denver Basin since it extends across five states.  Depletions in the Denver Basin totaled approximately 1.30 km3 between 1900 and 2008 (equal to approximately 1,053,927 acre-feet).  The San Luis Valley experienced a net depletion of about 3.6 km3 between 1900 and 2008 (approximately 2,918,568 acre-feet).  In short, Colorado’s large aquifers that were studied by the USGS are all part of the national trend of substantial depletion.

The USGS concluded that national groundwater use is on an unsustainable course, with water removal outpacing water recharge.  During the 20th century the volume of groundwater depletion totaled approximately 800 km3 (approximately 648,570,555 acre-feet), which increased by an additional 25% between 2001 and 2008.  This recent spike in groundwater withdrawal may be due to changes in weather such as more severe droughts, which cause communities to use more groundwater.  The report stated that “[i]n addition to widely recognized adverse environmental effects of groundwater depletion, the depletion also impacts communities dependent on groundwater resources . . . . the observed rates of depletion must eventually decrease as economic and physical constraints lead to reduced levels of extraction.”  However, the USGS noted that the rate of depletion was “leveling-off” and “self-limiting” in a few areas, particularly smaller western alluvial basins.

Instream flows protect Upper Colorado River fish habitat

Posted May 16, 2013

A broad-based stakeholder initiative to preserve natural resource values in the Upper Colorado River achieved a milestone when a state water court decreed three instream flow water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  The year-round water rights range in flows from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs and cover approximately 70 miles of the Colorado River from the Blue River to the Eagle River.

Together, these instream flow rights will help ensure that the Colorado River’s minimum flows “preserve the environment to a reasonable degree.”  These instream flow rights will directly benefit fish species, including wild trout. 

An annual survey conducted on this stretch of river between 2010 and 2012 revealed upwards of 700 greater-than-14-inch brown and rainbow trout per mile for each survey each year.  

Mottled sculpin are also present in this stretch of the river.  Although these small fish are not a threatened species, they are sensitive to adverse environmental changes.  As biological indicators, their presence indicates a healthy stream system.

“This is good news for a stretch of river that is beloved by generations of anglers,” commented Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited.  “It’s an example of what can be accomplished when working together.”

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