FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEENR
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 15, 2000(202) 514-2008
WWW.USDOJ.GOVTDD (202) 514-1888
HISTORIC WATER RIGHTS SETTLEMENT REACHED IN COLORADO
The Justice Department and the State of Colorado today announced an historic settlement that will protect the natural resources of the San Luis Valley while assuring that the region's agricultural economy will receive adequate water.
The agreement defines the allocation of water available for the U.S. Forest Service and for local water users now and in the future. It resolves claims filed in 1979 by the U.S. Forest Service for reserved instream flow water rights on 303 stream segments in the Rio Grand National Forest and Gunnison National Forest. This settlement marks the first time that the United States and state and local water users have agreed that the federal government has reserved water rights for instream flow purposes in national forests.
Under federal law, reserved water rights are created when the United States reserves land for a specific purpose, such as the creation of a national forest, and water is necessary to fulfill that purpose. Among the kinds of federal reserved water rights are "instream flow rights," which maintain water levels in a natural stream or water body for the protection of the watershed, or in this case, for the benefit of the national forests.
The agreement involves dozens of water users throughout the San Luis Valley, which is part of the Rio Grande watershed in south-central Colorado. Water that feeds the valley's agricultural economy flows through the two national forests, where the headwaters of the Rio Grand and the Closed Basin are located. The settlement is designed to protect fish and wildlife habitats in the forests, enhance recreation opportunities, and assist in fire prevention and control.
"This important agreement will secure water for the forests and help reduce threats to water rights in the future," said Lois J. Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources. "Now the people of the San Luis Valley will be able to grow their economy and protect their environment at the same time. We achieved these goals by working together with state and local leaders."
The agreement protects water users in the valley from uncertainty created by the Forest Service's claim for reserved water rights. It provides that if the Forest Service ever asks water users to "bypass" a portion of their water rights to their detriment, the settlement could be set aside and the Forest Service would need to renegotiate new water rights for the national forests. In the past, valley water users have faced potential demands by the Forest Service that they bypass a portion of their water rights as a condition for receiving special-use permits to build ditches or dams on national forest lands.
"Water is the lifeblood of Colorado and is needed for Colorado's agriculture, cities and industry," said Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. "This agreement provides certainty to the water rights owners of the San Luis Valley on the exercise of their water rights."
The settlement decree will be filed in Colorado District Court, Water Division No. 3 in Alamosa, within 30 days.