Attorney general butts in, butts out of Colo. water-rights spat

Legal News Line May 4, 2007, 3:00am

John Suthers

DENVER -- The vexed question of water rights in western states appears to have thrown Colorado Attorney General John Suthers into a legal spin. Less than two weeks after filing objections to a 2003 agreement between the federal government and water users of the Upper Gunnison River Basin, Suthers recently filed a motion withdrawing them. A Suthers staffer said the attorney general changed his mind over fears that his objections would stall talks between the federal government and the users, the Montrose Daily Press reported recently. Less than a quarter of users have so far signed agreements. "A number of parties in the Gunnison River Basin made it very clear they felt the filing of those objections would prevent further negotiation," said Alexandra Davis, First Assistant Attorney General for the water rights unit. The Upper Gunnison River Basin forms part of the Colorado River Basin in southwest Colorado. The basin sits mostly in Gunnison County, on a plateau near the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Ranchers and others wanted stipulations protecting their water rights from possible federal claims written into the agreement. Suthers' office filed objections to the stipulations April 16 partly over concerns about the Department of Wildlife's future water rights, Davis said. The federal government owns reserved water rights to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River that date back to 1933 whereas most water users' rights were filed in 1941. As in most western states, Colorado water law gives precedence to the earliest filed claim. However, a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision struck down that principle and ruled that state water rights there be based on balancing the needs of all water users, LegalNewsLine reported recently. Suthers objected to the stipulations despite earlier support for the users, according to Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Kugel said there was "a broad base of support" for the users' stipulations in the agreement. Kugel hopes Suthers's change of heart "will set aside our differences and allow both the state and Upper Gunnison water users to forge an agreement with the federal government" over Black Canyon water rights. Currently 22 of the 106 filings by Upper Gunnison water users for stipulations protecting their water rights from federal claims have been signed by a water court judge.

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