SAN LUIS VALLEY – Once every 10 years a comet is visible in the night sky, the census counts every person living in the United States, and your water rights are at risk of abandonment in Colorado. Water is Colorado’s most precious natural resource.
Colorado’s proposed decennial abandonment lists were published online on July 1. Over four thousand water rights were listed, including over 630 rights in Division 3. This is a marked increase from decades past. Put another way, the lists prepared by the Division Engineers at the Colorado Division of Water Resources could result in a significant number of water rights being declared abandoned throughout the state. The Rio Grande Basin has been over appropriated since the 1890s with groundwater resources depleted throughout much of the basin. The Colorado Water Plan projects the basin will need an additional 180,000 acre feet (AF) by 2050. As a result, protecting existing rights is more important than ever.
Water right owners should check the lists online at http://water.state.co.us to determine whether their rights are at risk. The lists will also be published in the local papers of record throughout the state in July and August. While the agency is required to notify the “last-known owner or claimant” of a water right included on the list by July 31, the State’s ownership records are not always up-to-date. In an arid climate like Colorado, water rights are highly coveted and highly valued. Losing a water right to abandonment can be catastrophic. It can also directly impact the bottom line and the market value of your property.
Water right owners have multiple opportunities to protest inclusion of a right on the abandonment lists. Under Colorado water laws, abandonment requires both an overt act (typically non-use) and intent. Good record-keeping, personal knowledge and extrinsic evidence like Google Earth imagery can help protect valued water rights. Lands protected by conservation easements may have other good arguments to employ.
Fortunately, the deadline for written objections to be submitted to the appropriate Division Engineer (along with a $10.00 fee for each water right) is July 1, 2021. In the meantime, water right owners would be wise to start collecting records and consulting with legal counsel. By Dec. 31, 2021, after considering any filed objections, the Division Engineers will file the final proposed abandonment lists with the Water Court. Water right owners can then formally protest the inclusion on the list by June 30, 2022, which protests will be heard by the Water Judge beginning in October 2022.