One of the basic realities of the West is the scarcity of water, which leads to the incredibly high value placed on water rights.
You can steal my grub, you can take my woman, but dont touch my water!
Another reality in the West is that mineral extraction, meaning mining and oil and gas development, is also held near sacred. So when these two political powerhouses clash, it can be both confusing and fascinating to watch.
In La Plata County, this drama of the gas industry butting up against water law, and water reality, has a long history. Coal-bed methane production here is one of the areas where oil or gas extraction has occurred within and near a drinking water aquifer. The debates about how this extraction has affected the quality and quantity of water wells, and the flows of springs and streams, began nearly immediately after coal-bed methane production began.
State House Bill 1286, co-sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, is the latest attempt by the oil and gas industry to change the basic rules of Colorado water law.
The bill was introduced in mid-March, and passed through the House like a greased pig. It now moves to the Senate. It is a short bill and has received little attention. It basically says that the state water engineer has the authority to designate formations that are nontributary, and that these designations are given presumptive reality in court.
Colorado water law has been based on the assumption that all groundwater is tributary unless it can be shown to be nontributary. That means, if you pump water out of the ground, it is up to you to show it will not affect any other water-rights holders. To prove that water is nontributary, you had to prove that the withdrawal of the water will not deplete a natural stream by any more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the annual rate of withdrawal a very difficult standard.
This bill would change that basic hydrologic assumption to a bureaucratic determination, but only for mineral development,
Whats the big deal? First, it changes the law from being based on how water works in reality to how it can be worked in a political bureaucracy. Second, it moves the burden of proof from the new water user (in this case, the oil and gas industry), to the traditional water-rights holder. Third, it continues to give the oil and gas industry special rights over every other water user agricultural, municipal, industrial and domestic.
Colorado water law is complex but is generally based on hydrology, how water really works. Why are our lawmakers, even from agricultural backgrounds, giving the state engineer, a politically appointed bureaucrat, the ability to assist the oil and gas industry in stealing peoples water? This is a bill that should end up in the Senates trash can, not on the governors desk.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dan Randolph is interim director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.