AG preparing for legal battle of water



Colorado’s attorney general is seeking to reinforce his office’s water-focused legal team so it could be prepared for upcoming fights over the Colorado River.

Attorney General Phil Weiser, who was just re-elected to a second term, said his office needs to be prepared for litigation or negotiation with other stakeholders to defend Colorado’s water rights.

He’s not asking for an overhaul of the office — his ask to the Joint Budget Committee is for two new positions, and water and natural resources make up an overall small percentage of his office’s total budget — but he noted that “the challenges with water are heating up.”

“The era of the lower basin states taking as much water as they wanted — up to 10 million acre-feet when they’re only entitled 7.5 — is over,” Weiser said recently.

The lower basin of the Colorado River begins at Lees Ferry, a point just south of the Utah-Arizona border. The lower basin includes those states plus, California, Nevada and New Mexico, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The interstate Colorado River Compact allows upper and lower basin states to pull 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year.

An acre-foot amounts to about 326,000 gallons or enough for two typical families of four for a year. Some 40 million people live in the entire Colorado River Basin. The Colorado River-fed lakes Powell and Mead, help quench those thirsts. But the two reservoirs — the largest in the country — are dangerously low.

Ideas on bolstering the water supply — or at least not drinking too deep from it — vary. Weiser said his focus is on protecting the state’s share. Lawmakers have said water will be a “centerpiece” of this legislative session. House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, has also singled out lower basin states for overusing their allotment.

Weiser noted the strain on the reservoirs and the pressure that puts on water users up and down the river. Navigating the legal rapids will require negotiation or litigation, he said.

“We’ve got to be prepared for either way,” Weiser told reporters after his investiture ceremony Thursday. “We are not going to be afraid to litigate and protect our rights, and as we can find collaborative solutions, we’ll work hard to do that.”

As an example, the state of Colorado has filed a legal brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a legal dispute with the Navajo Nation over water rights in the river. Weiser described the lawsuit as nominally between Arizona and the Navajo Nation, but fundamentally about the “Law of the River.”



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