DENVER – A measure that aimed to level the playing field for farmers and ranchers appealing groundwater rights rulings drowned in the Legislature on Tuesday.
The legislation would have prohibited entering new evidence on appeal after a state commission makes a decision on groundwater disputes.
The Senate Judiciary Committee initially failed to vote on the bill, but then came back later in the meeting to officially kill the legislation on a unanimous vote.
The bill had powerful opposition from former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, and Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.
“Big boy politics at its worst,” lamented Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who co-sponsored the bill in the House, where it passed 60-5, with the support of Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.
The 12-member Colorado Ground Water Commission issues decisions on disputes. Appeals, however, are handled by water court judges in district courts across the state.
State law allows for new evidence to be entered upon appeal when the issue hits water court, though such appeals are rare.
At that time, larger water interests – often those that try to transfer water from agricultural to municipal use – rely on water engineers and other experts to stack evidence in the case, say proponents of the bill.
Smaller farmers and ranchers – who are fighting for their water rights – are forced to invest in attorneys to combat the insertion of new evidence. Costs can become unbearable.
“It finally puts a stop to the games being played by those looking to take advantage of our designated basin system,” Marc Arnusch, a member of the Ground Water Commission, said of the legislation.
“A case must be heard again completely from the beginning, which causes a great deal of time and money.”
Coram assumed the measure would be a simple fix to an obvious problem. But that was before it became embroiled in politics.
Since leaving office in 2007, Owens has worked on water and land resource issues, including proposing water sales to municipalities. Coram gave Owens and Cadman “100 percent credit” for the bill’s troubled path in the Senate.
“I’ve worked on things in this building that’s taken me two, three years to get through. I’ll be back,” Coram said.
Critics of the bill – including Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango – say the measure would erode an unbiased appeals process before a judge. They point out that most of the commission members are political appointments by the governor, unlike a court.
“It’s a stacked commission,” Roberts said.
“When you go to court, there is an independent judge ... there are procedural differences.”