Colorado told to stop stealing water

  • Arkansas River in Colorado and Kansas

    Diane Sylvain
 

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.

Judge Arthur 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 summer.

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 City.

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.

However, Littleworth ruled against a second contention by Kansas: that a winter storage program for several Colorado municipalities and irrigation districts also violated the compact.

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 projects.

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 so.

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 Administration.

For more information, contact the Colorado State Engineer's Office, 1313 Sherman St., Denver, CO 80203 (303/866-3581).

Barry Noreen reports for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Upper Missouri Waterkeeper seeks an Outreach Director to play a key role designing and leading activities and initiatives that engage citizens in water resource decisionmaking,...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...