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Know the West

Tug-of-war over water



The Colorado Legislature is considering a measure that could turn the tide for fish, rivers and rafters. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, would allow irrigators and municipalities to retain rights to water they choose to leave instream for fish and boaters.

Under current law, irrigators must use or lose their water. Rights to water left instream for river protection must be turned over to a state water conservation board that oversees 8,000 miles of streams and lakes.

Gordon's bill, which adopts recommendations from a Trout Unlimited report titled A Dry Legacy, would also allow conservation groups to purchase instream water rights from a willing seller.

That bothers Greg Walcher, director of the Department of Natural Resources. While he agrees that the state's current water laws are a barrier to river preservation, he fears the Gordon bill could drain water away from Colorado agriculture. The bill is "a wrongheaded approach to a legitimate problem," he says.

The fierce opposition to the bill from traditional water users and state officials "has to do with control, not just environmental issues," says Melinda Kassen, director of Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water Project.

Crucial to the bill's fate is Gov. Bill Owens, R, who has yet to take a position on the measure.