- CHARLES ASHBY
DENVER — Conflicts between landowners and those who own subsurface mineral rights — clashes that have grown in recent years because of urbanization — have now touched water, and two rural legislators are attempting to address it.
Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Don Valdez, D-La Jara, won preliminary approval in the Colorado House on Wednesday for a bill that makes it clear that those who own easements for water rights, such as irrigation ditches, also have the right to go onto private property to maintain them.
The two lawmakers said that as the state has become more urbanized, and people move into previously rural areas, they are blocking so-called ditch riders from doing their jobs, which is to ensure that whatever water supplies they are overseeing get where they’re supposed to go, whether it be an agricultural operation or for municipal use.
“What we’re trying to do is make it so that the easement holder for a ditch or a pipe or any water transference infrastructure can get onto the easement, improve the easement, can put in a pipe, can do the kind of things that we do in agriculture even though some of these ditches are now flowing through suburban newly developed areas,” Catlin said.
“We’ve had some pushback (from) landowners who say, ‘No, I do not want that easement improved on my land.’ That goes against the easement right holder’s rights, too,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is make this much easier for everybody, and we don’t have to have lawsuits in order to find out that you have the right to improve and to repair and maintain the easements across another piece of land.”
Catlin said that oftentimes disputes end up in court, causing both sides to expend money they shouldn’t.
Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, said that people who purchase property in formerly rural areas don’t realize that a waterway that may run through it is more than just a landscaping feature.
“Some people when they buy a private property, they simply don’t understand that what they think is a river in their backyard, is a ditch,” Arndt said. “People have a right to maintain that ditch. In fact, if they didn’t we’d be in real trouble.”
Other lawmakers, however, said they feared the bill gives away too much power to water rights owners over landowners.
Republican Reps. Perry Buck of Windsor and Kimmi Lewis of Kim said private property rights should be observed, at least those of surface landowners. “I’m hoping that both, property owners and ditch owners, can come to an agreement before we give all the rights to a ditch owner and an easement,” Buck said.
“I am worried that this is a little too far,” Lewis added. “I am concerned that we are creating a water right out of an easement right. These people don’t have that right to tromp over private land to redo theirs.”