The last couple of weeks have brought a flurry of news stories about gas companies, water grabs, rulemakings and
statements of opposition. The issue is as convoluted as it is confusing, but what it boils down to is a situation that
requires attention and vigilance from citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys.
Here is the story. Local ranchers Bill and Beth Vance and Jim and Terry Fitzgerald won a lawsuit forcing gas companies
to behave like all other groundwater users in the state and have a permit to pump water out if is being put to
beneficial use" - which coal-bed methane drilling qualifies as.
What followed was a series of rulemakings by the state engineer for the Division of Water Resources to determine what
water is tributary - and therefore requires an augmentation plan to replenish what is removed in the drilling process -
and what are discrete areas of water that have little impact on rivers and streams: nontributary.
The map defining the two, issued by the state engineer's office, has raised some questions in that it was based heavily
on input from industry. But what has gotten even more attention is a blizzard of water-rights filings by industry on
the water in question: rights that would trump those of the overlying surface owners who had not previously sought
their own adjudicated water right.
The nuances of this scenario are many, and landowners on whose property these rights have been filed understandably are
full of questions about what the filings mean for their water and land.
There are larger questions, too, about what the industry is up to. Seeking legal, and arguably unnecessary, claim to
thousands of acre-feet of water - albeit often brackish and of questionable use - without permission of the overlying
landowner is hardly neighborly, and raises eyebrows at the very least. It also raises a number of legal issues that
will be keeping water attorneys busy for the next several months, at a minimum. And that leaves aside, for the moment,the question of augmentation plans for the water deemed to be tributary.
In the meantime, though, landowners who received notice of a water-rights filing - tributary or nontributary - would be
wise to educate themselves about what is at stake in their particular circumstance. Those with an adjudicated right or
a ditch right, for example, might take a different course of action than someone who has no property rights to the
water in question.
There are a number of options on how to proceed, and determining the best one requires diligence and access to
knowledgeable resources. Fortunately, there are many of these available to help sort through this inherently murky
San Juan Citizens Alliance can help point people in the right direction as this saga of ruling, rulemaking and
subsequent water-rights filing unfolds. It will be awhile before the final outcome is determined, but getting educated
and involved now ensures the best chance of protecting all of the important interests at stake.
Megan Graham is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.