Groundbreaking State Law Tested in Colorado Headwaters Stream

During low-flow conditions, a pilot project will leave more water in this reach of Willow Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River near Granby, Colorado, to benefit habitat and fish populations. Photo: Geoff Elliott/Grand Environmental Services.
During low-flow conditions, a pilot project will leave more water in this reach of Willow Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River near Granby, Colorado, to benefit habitat and fish populations. Photo: Geoff Elliott/Grand Environmental Services.

Sandra Postel and Todd Reeve

The infamous use-it-or lose-it rule is arguably the biggest barrier to water conservation and river-flow restoration in the western United States.

It basically says that if anyone holding water rights does not put them to full use, the unused portion can be taken away and allocated to serve the needs of another water user. Historically, using a water right to keep a river flowing for fish or the health of the ecosystem was not considered a “beneficial use” of water, and therefore could result in losing that water right.

Perversely, the use-it-or-lose-it principle gives water rights holders an incentive to waste water so that they don’t risk losing any of their increasingly valuable water rights.

Bit by bit, however, new state laws and innovative projects are chipping away at this outdated rule, and keeping rivers flowing for fish, wildlife and local communities. A groundbreaking 2013 Colorado law provides new flexibility that allows water rights owners to allocate water to a river during times of critical low flow.

In the Colorado River headwaters, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, Willow Creek is providing a test case for the new law.

There, Witt Caruthers, a ranch owner with rights to divert a portion of Willow Creek’s water, decided to develop a plan allowing him to leave water in the creek for up to five years during a 10-year period—without the threat of the “use it or lose it” provision.

The water for Caruthers’ ranch, which is delivered through two irrigation ditches not far from where Willow Creek meets the Colorado River, fills stock tanks for cattle —> Read More

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