Bridging Water Rights and River Restoration

Bridging Water Rights and River Restoration:
My Path with the Colorado Water Trust

As the former State Engineer of Colorado, I have dedicated my career to understanding and managing our state’s most precious resource: water. Throughout my tenure, the challenges posed by water management in the arid West have only grown, exacerbated by increasing demand and the effects of climate change. It’s a complex puzzle, especially within the framework of Colorado’s prior appropriation system, often summarized by the old maxim, “first in time, first in right.” I grew up understanding the challenges of this doctrine being raised on an irrigated farm that continues today as I share this passion of farming with my children and grandchildren. However, my involvement with the Colorado Water Trust has reinforced my belief that there are innovative solutions to restore water to our streams and rivers while continuing to meet our traditional water needs, despite these challenges.

The prior appropriation system, which governs water rights in Colorado, was developed during a time of rapid expansion and development in the West. It was designed to encourage the settlement and economic development of arid lands by granting water rights to those who first diverted water from streams for beneficial use. While this system has been instrumental in the development of agriculture and industry, it has also led to situations where environmental needs, such as maintaining streamflow for ecosystem health, were often overlooked.

Recognizing this gap, I became a member of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring flows to Colorado’s rivers in need. The Water Trust works within the existing legal framework to develop voluntary, market-based projects to secure water for environmental needs. This approach not only respects the rights of existing water users but also highlights the potential for collaboration and innovation in water management.

One of the primary reasons I joined the Water Trust was to help foster these collaborative efforts. By working with water rights holders, local communities, government agencies, and other stakeholders, the Water Trust develops solutions that benefit both people and the environment. These solutions often involve water leasing, water rights donations, or infrastructure improvements that free up water to be returned to the rivers without harming the original users’ needs. The Cache la Poudre River-Poudre Flows Project symbolizes an innovative solution involving collaboration among many stakeholders.

Additionally, Colorado Water Trust has facilitated projects where agricultural water users temporarily lease part of their water rights to enhance streamflows during critical times of the year. These arrangements provide farmers and ranchers with additional income while ensuring that streams receive much-needed water during drought periods or when fish and wildlife are most vulnerable. Two projects that exemplify this approach are the Little Cimmaron River-McKinley Ditch Project and the Slater Creek Project. These projects not only demonstrate that environmental restoration and agricultural prosperity can go hand in hand, but also serve as proof of concept that flexible water management can work under prior appropriation.

Moreover, my involvement with Colorado Water Trust has been a deeply rewarding part of my post-official career because it aligns with my longstanding commitment to finding balanced solutions to water management challenges. It allows me to continue my work in a meaningful way, contributing to the sustainability of our water resources and the health of our river ecosystems.

In conclusion, my decision to join the Colorado Water Trust was driven by a commitment to stewardship and a belief in the power of cooperation. Despite the constraints of the prior appropriation system, I am optimistic about our ability to find creative and sustainable solutions to water management. The success of the Colorado Water Trust shows that it is possible to restore flows to our rivers and streams, ensuring that they continue to thrive for future generations. Through continued collaboration and innovative thinking, we can protect and enhance Colorado’s waterways, preserving our natural heritage while meeting the needs of all water users.

Dick Wolfe
Board Member, Colorado Water Trust
M.S., P.E. Retired Colorado State Engineer, Senior Advisor LRE Water