Sides discuss water rights

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— Two lawyers will discuss the pros and cons of pursuing recreational water rights at tonight's City Council meeting.

For the last three months, the city has been researching the possibility of filing for recreational water rights, which would preserve in-stream water flows through downtown Steamboat.

The city will hear from Glenn Porzak, who represented the towns of Golden, Vail and Breckenridge in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. In a 3-3 decision, the state Supreme Court recognized recreational water rights for those towns.

Porzak plans to discuss how the town benefits from those rights, what was involved in court trials and appeals to acquire them and how the law has changed since then.

"I'll talk about what are the similarities and differences, what they would likely encounter if they would go the route of securing recreational water rights and I will give them the background having been through this war myself," Porzak said.

Tom Sharp will also make a presentation to the council. The local attorney is on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

City Attorney Tony Lettunich said Sharp has generally opposed filing for recreational water rights.

"Everybody has different views on what the council should do. (The council) wants as much information (as possible) on the two different sides," Lettunich said.

The city's water attorney, who Lettunich described as having a more middle-of-the-road view on recreational water rights, is also expected at tonight's meeting.

Proponents of recreational water rights said they would protect the river habitat and provide the water needed for kayaking, fishing and tubing. In the last two years, the city has spent close to $100,000 on improvements to the Yampa River.

Under the state's first-in-time, first-in-right water law, recreational water rights would allow the city to get its foot in the door to ensure water continues to flow through Steamboat at the same levels it does today.

Recreational water rights would protect the city's stream flow from being drained by future development upstream, but they would not guarantee the city always has all the water it might want.

Older water rights existing upstream mean that during droughts, such as the one last summer, the city may not get all the water it requests. And in most wet years, the river would far exceed the city's requested levels.

Concerns have been expressed that recreational water rights could encourage sham kayak courses to be built in towns on the state border, sending water over the state lines and limiting water uses in the state.

"Anyone with any interest in the Yampa River and the water in the Yampa River should come hear this presentation," former council member Ken Brenner said.

Brenner has kept the issue of recreational water rights before the council ever since the Supreme Court ruling in May.

Unlike the Golden, Vail and Breckenridge cases, a state law passed in 2001 would require Steamboat to first appear before the Colorado Water Conservation Board to acquire water rights. That board would then make a recommendation to the water courts.

Pueblo, Upper Gunnison and Longmont have applications pending under the new law.

Porzak said the battle over recreational water rights is really a fight over what shape the future of Colorado will take and pits the old West against the new West.

Recreational water rights challenge the old west mentality of diverting water for agriculture or power generating uses, he said.

"That is why this is attracting so much attention and why the state is (fighting) so hard for each one. They are trying to make it so expensive for municipalities, to deter municipalities from moving forward. And the potential benefits (to the municipality) are huge," he said.


-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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