New water bill counteracts court ruling

DENVER - Senators took action Thursday to deflect a state Supreme Court ruling that could make it difficult to keep water in reservoirs - just as drought is tightening its grip on much of the state.

The bill is among several this year that add up to the Legislature's biggest push in years to conserve water and store it for dry years.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, won unanimous support for Senate Bill 41 in the agriculture committee. Her bill counteracts a 2011 court ruling on the Yampa River that said reservoir owners can't get an absolute right to water in their reservoirs unless it is all put to a "beneficial use."

Colorado law has a "use it or lose it" approach to water, in order to prevent hoarding or speculation. But legislators and their allies in the water business think the court took that doctrine to an extreme.

"The Supreme Court basically issued us an invitation to do something different than what their case came up with," Roberts said.

It is a bipartisan issue. Roberts sponsored the bill along with Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said that unless the bill passes and reverses the Supreme Court ruling, utilities would have to suck their reservoirs dry before they could get new water rights.

"It's hopefully stepping back to a time where it's a much more practical reading of the law," Lochhead said.

The bill declares that storing water for firefighting and drought mitigation is a beneficial use, and it says water rights can't be considered to be abandoned when the water is in long-term storage.

Most major water interests have lined up to support the bill, which promises it smooth sailing as it progresses through the Senate.