Western Slope wins water wrestle

  Water users on Colorado's Western Slope are celebrating a court decision that keeps the "river" in the Gunnison River Basin. A district water-court judge ruled that there was not enough excess water in the Gunnison River watershed for the Union Park project, a proposal that would have diverted 60,000 acre-feet of water per year to the Front Range.


"Now, we can start paying attention to how to manage the water in the basin for the beneficial use of the basin, instead of constantly defending it from being taken out of the basin," says Steve Glazer of the High Country Citizens' Alliance in Crested Butte.


Arapahoe County, which includes Aurora and other eastern Denver suburbs, has been trying since 1986 to build a reservoir in Gunnison County's Union Park, so that it could divert water beneath the Continental Divide via a 42-mile-long aqueduct.


The federal government, the state of Colorado, and local interests lined up against the project, arguing there was not enough unallocated water in the river's tributaries to fill the reservoir. A 1991 district water court ruled against the project, but the county appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld much of Judge Robert Brown's decision, but turned it back to the lower court on the issue of legal vs. historical rights.


In his recent decision, Brown found that water rights allocated to the Upper Gunnison River by the federal Bureau of Reclamation were for in-basin use only. He dismissed the case "with prejudice," meaning that the case can be appealed but not refiled.


Arapahoe County may not be eager to appeal. County commission members have changed since the project was first proposed, says commissioner Steve Ward, and "with one exception, I don't think any of us would have started this project." Adds Ward, "An unfavorable decision in water court was certainly no surprise."


*Michelle Nijhuis


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