Farmers, ranchers worry about proposed state initiatives targeting water rights
Gene Kammerzell owns water rights that were decreed in 1865 and have been in his family’s name for 100 years – dating back to when his grandparents migrated from Russia to Colorado and established a family farm near Milliken, Colo..
Those rights now have monetary and sentimental worth, so he’s not ready to watch them become useless and devalued, which would happen – he and others say – if a pair of public trust initiatives make it onto a ballot in November and Colorado residents approve the measures.
More importantly, Kammerzell said, Colorado’s agriculture as a whole would be at risk if the initiatives become law.
Initiatives 3 and 45 – proposed citizen-sponsored legislation pieced together and filed by Richard Hamilton of Fairplay and his attorney, Phil Doe – seek to apply the public trust doctrine to Colorado water rights through a constitutional change.
Kammerzell, a Weld County produce grower who owns Arborland Nursery and is a member of the Colorado Farm Bureau Water Committee, has joined a number of other farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations – as well as the Colorado Water Congress – in fighting the initiatives because they could cause chaos with state water rights, according to the opponents.
Both sides agree in that the initiatives would override the state’s current prior-appropriation system – which states that those who own older water rights have a higher priority in using them – and 136 years of case law that have also helped define how water may be used in Colorado.
In addition to invalidating water rights, the proposed measures, if voted into law, would allow anyone to use the state’s water and then leave it up to the public to determine if the water is being used for the common good, Hamilton explained in a phone interview Wednesday. If members of the public were to determine the water isn’t being used for the common good, they could file a lawsuit in effort to curtail or prevent further water use in that capacity.
Hamilton, an aquatic microbiologist who has been a lobbyist in the environmental and natural resources industries for nearly 40 years, said the purpose behind his initiatives – in addition to placing control of the state’s water into the general public’s hands – is to prevent further contamination of water, often seen in return flows to the rivers following industrial use, and prevent the further depletion of the state’s rivers, caused by increased municipal, industrial and agricultural use.
“Water is a public right,” Hamilton said, “and if you want it, don’t overuse the resource … and don’t send it back to the public filled with crap.”
Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, is among those opposing Hamilton’s initiatives.
The Water Congress, which represents varied statewide water interests, is seeking to block the initiatives by appealing a state title board decision on the grounds that the initiatives do not adhere to the single-subject rule, Kemper said.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the ballot measures is expected in late March or early April.
If the Supreme Court allows the initiatives to go forward, Hamilton and Doe would need to gather about 86,000 signatures on a petition to get the initiatives on a ballot in November. Hamilton expressed confidence he could gather the signatures.
Hamilton added that public doctrines have been applied to water use in other Western states, and, in his opinion, has been successful.
In the mean time, Kammerzell said he worries the initiatives, if voted into law, would leave farmers and ranchers in a minority, facing competing demands from recreational users and the general public.
“People could say, ‘Hey, farmers and ranchers are already getting 85 percent of the water’ … and decide they’d rather use the water in the reservoirs for recreation and not agriculture, and import their food from somewhere else,” he said, “which would put at risk a lot of communities in Colorado who depend on agriculture.
“These water rights are valuable to those who own them – both monetarily and for the purpose of growing food for a growing population … and they would be taken away from us without compensation,” he added. “I believe farmers and ranchers have been great stewards of our natural resources, and in being efficient with water and maintaining its quality.
“Could more improvements be made? Absolutely. But taking away everybody’s water rights is not the answer.”