Water decision could boost local tourism
BRECKENRIDGE – When the Colorado Supreme Court decided last month to grant the city of Golden water rights for strictly recreational purposes, it freed communities across the state to target water resources for tourism without fear of court opposition.
The decision allowed the town of Breckenridge to requisition almost the entire average flow of the Blue River in town for a whitewater park, positioned behind the recreation center, and gave local organizers the green light to add boulders and other “features” to the stream to divert the water.
Chad Gorby, co-owner of Colorado Kayak Supply, said the Supreme Court’s decision will affect local business.
“I think the more parks that exist, the more paddlers will be involved with the sport,” Gorby said. “It’s what skateparks have done for skateboarding, except these parks will help kayakers and paddlers.
“A whitewater park,” he continued, “basically allows you to paddle whenever you have time, without the logistics of finding a partner to shuttle you back and forth. It lets you paddle for half an hour, during a lunch hour, or whenever you can find time.”
A new era
Other proponents of the decision have gone one step further by saying the decision signifies the entrance into a “fourth era” for Colorado.
“Agriculture has been the Holy Grail of water rights, so to speak, but it represents only one percent of the state’s GNP,” said Glenn Porzak, attorney for Golden. “Tourism, by most conservative industries, is 10 percent of GNP. For a place like Breckenridge, it’s everything.”
Porzak said Colorado began as a mining state, switched to agriculture, moved on to development and now, with this
decision, is obviously targeting tourism as the stock industry.
Opponents, however, are worried the decision sets a dangerous precedent. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), in its reply to the Supreme Court, said it “does not have much room to negotiate agreements that strike a balance between the desire for recreational water rights and future water needs.” (The CWCB did not return phone calls by press time.)
In other words, the main conservation board in the state is worried it’s losing power.
During the case, Porzak defended the innocence of recreational users by presenting evidence the Golden course is “zero impact” and doesn’t absorb any water. In the end, the evidence that the course (built around 4,000 tons of boulders) pumped $23 million into the economy in three years swayed enough judges to lock the vote at 3-3.
“Who knew what was on their mind,” Porzak said. “I think it got the trial judge, which the whole (Supreme Court) case was based around, because he liked two things. One, this is a water right like any other water right, and, secondly, we really spent a lot of time showing the economic benefit for the local economy and the state as a whole.”
One judge did abstain from voting because of a conflict of interest.
When Golden requested 1,000 cubic feet per second in 1998, it caused a stir among conservationists, but a local judge gave the water park a favorable ruling, which the city of Golden then appealed to the highest court. Recreational appropriations had never topped 100 cfs before the rights were granted to Golden. Since the decision, Breckenridge (524 cfs on the Blue River), Vail (400 cfs on Gore Creek) and Aspen (350 cfs on Roaring Fork River) have also been granted large recreation water rights.
“(Opponents) never came out and said it, but the whole underlying threat to recreation was that it was second-class use,” Porzak said. “We have to have this water so they can later divert it somewhere else. Instead of just letting it flow by, Colorado is going to make more money out of using the river. Down the river, farmers will still be able to use the same water, and on the border, the right amount of water will still be flowing across.”
Between a rock and a hard place
While towns now have the clearance to build large parks in the river as long as it does not cause legal injury to any party, battles for who owns the rivers are still a major concern for business owners.
Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures in Keystone, said his company is working to keep float rights through private property.
“It’s gotten to the point now, if you own both sides of the river and we run a boat up on a rock, they could prosecute for trespassing,” Bradford said. “That’s the scary part. Hopefully, we can get our own precedent set. It’s our biggest fear in recreation.”
Colorado law states that if you own both sides of the river, you also own the bottom of the river bed. As long as a boat stays afloat on the river, without anchoring, it will not be in violation.
Fishing has also been a concern for both sides. Private fishing ranches have filed complaints against rafting companies for ruining their hot spots, while landowners have also filed complaints against fishermen for walking on the bottom of the river.
Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Canon City, has seen a competitor lose his business in such a lawsuit.
“Those opposed to the right to float are heavily influenced, in my opinion, by their own personal agenda,” said Neinas, who also helped organize a demonstration in Lake City last year geared toward protecting float rights. “None of us debate that the bed and banks are private land. You don’t own the water in Colorado though – you own the rights.”
In the end, business owners said, if you research where you’re floating, you’ll most likely avoid any problems.
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