A special water master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court handed Colorado a stunning defeat in February. He ruled that the state has stolen hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from Kansas since 1949.
Littleworth's decision concludes an eight-year legal battle over
the Arkansas River, and will likely force Colorado farmers to cease
groundwater pumping at some 1,500 wells on the eastern plains
between Pueblo, Colo., and the Kansas border. That could dry up as
much as 30,000 acres of irrigated farmland as early as this
There will also be a monetary cost. Now
that he's stopped the damage, Littleworth must determine how much
Colorado owes Kansas for losses over the past 45 years. Kansas
Attorney General Bob Stephan has tossed out the figure of $100
million for starters.
The Arkansas River once
flowed year-round and was over a mile wide near Garden City, in
western Kansas. Today, because of water diversions and groundwater
pumping in Colorado, the Arkansas bleeds into the ground soon after
it crosses the border into Kansas. It stays dry for another 150
miles until downstream tributaries fill the river again below Dodge
Kansas lawyers argued successfully that
Colorado had violated the Arkansas River Compact by permitting
hundreds of shallow irrigation wells. The wells siphoned off river
water that otherwise would have reached the main stem of the
Arkansas and ultimately Kansas.
Littleworth ruled against a second contention by Kansas: that a
winter storage program for several Colorado municipalities and
irrigation districts also violated the
What the decision will mean for Colorado
is not yet clear. Local water districts, bankers and others claim
the lower Arkansas valley will be turned into a dust bowl. But
depending on individual circumstances, farmers could buy relatively
cheap water from Colorado Springs or Aurora, two cities that have
become water-rich due to recent purchases and transbasin water
The case, which has already cost
Colorado $3 million, will put a significant burden on the state's
taxpayers. And it represents a major embarrassment for the state's
formidable water establishment.
But there will
be little or no impact on the environment. Sucking the Arkansas dry
has been a collaborative effort involving both states. This
decision doesn't change that.
"It isn't a
question of flows that restore some natural condition," says David
Robbins, Colorado's lead attorney on the case. "The Kansas
irrigators will be using it."
Robbins adds that
since Colorado lost, the state should settle out of court before
spending more time and money in a lawsuit over damage figures.
Kansas, however, has not indicated it is willing to do
Meanwhile, Colorado's loss has become a minor
political football. Denver attorney Dick Freese, former chairperson
of the state Democratic Party, announced in March that he will run
against Republican Attorney General Gail Norton. Freese says Norton
could have saved Colorado taxpayers millions of dollars by agreeing
to an out-of-court settlement before the Arkansas River Compact
For more information, contact the
Colorado State Engineer's Office, 1313 Sherman St., Denver, CO
Barry Noreen reports
for the Colorado Springs Gazette