Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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In Case No. 02CW403, and Case No. 10CW306, the Colorado Water Court Division 1 determined, among other things, that the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (“FRICO”) did not have a decreed right to use seepage water accruing to a ditch known as the Beebe Seep Canal. FRICO nonetheless continued to utilize the seepage water outside the priority system to make additional water available to its shareholders for irrigation. In 2016, FRICO sought a decree confirming absolute and conditional water rights to use unappropriated: (1) water seeping from Barr Lake; and (2) natural runoff, drainage, waste, return flows, and seepage water arising in, flowing into, and accruing to the Beebe Seep Canal (the “Subject Water Rights”) to supplement water deliveries to its shareholders for irrigation. Following the culmination of stipulations with most of the twenty initial objectors and a five-day trial, the water court issued its final judgment confirming, adjudicating, approving, and decreeing FRICO’s use of the Subject Water Rights contingent upon certain terms and conditions outlined within the water court’s Amended Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Judgment and Decree of the Court (“Amended Decree”). The issues raised by FRICO in this appeal concerned three of the specific terms and conditions that the water court placed upon FRICO’s use of the Subject Water Rights. The issue raised by three of the objectors in their cross-appeal concerned the water court’s authority to grant certain of these new rights. The Colorado Supreme Court found the water court's findings and its imposition of the challenged terms and conditions in the Amended Decree were supported by the record and did not violate FRICO's right to appropriate unappropriated water. Further, the Supreme Court held the water court was within its authority to grant FRICO the absolute rights challenged by the three objectors in their cross-appeal. View "Farmers Reservoir v. Arapahoe County" on Justia Law

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In the spring of 2015, a severe three-day storm deluged an eastern Colorado area with over six inches of rain. Two inches of water fell within thirty minutes on the first day, “a once-in-a-half-century occurrence.” During the storm, a mixture of wastewater and rainwater overflowed from one of the wastewater containment ponds in a cattle feedlot operated by 5 Star Feedlot, Inc. (“5 Star”). That water crossed several miles of land and ultimately found its way to the South Fork of the Republican River, killing an estimated 15,000 fish and giving rise to this litigation. Pursuant to section 33-6-110(1), C.R.S. (2020), the State initiated a civil action against 5 Star seeking to recover the value of the deceased fish based on 5 Star’s alleged violation of three predicate statutory provisions (“taking statutory provisions”) which, with some exceptions not pertinent here, made it unlawful for any person to “take” (i.e., to kill or otherwise acquire possession of or control over) certain wildlife. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of liability. The district court denied 5 Star’s motion, granted the State’s motion, and, following a bench trial on damages, ordered 5 Star to pay the State $625,755. 5 Star then appealed. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the taking statutory provisions required the State to prove that 5 Star acted knowingly or, at minimum, performed an unlawful voluntary act. To this, the Colorado Supreme Court concurred, finding the district court erred both in entering summary judgment against 5 Star and in denying 5 Star’s cross- motion. “Since the State failed to formally allege, never mind present proof, that 5 Star’s lawful, years-long operation of wastewater containment ponds killed or otherwise acquired possession of or control over the fish, it could not satisfy the voluntary act or actus reus requirement of the taking statutory provisions.” View "Dep't of Nat. Res. v. 5 Star Feedlot, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from an application for a conditional water storage right filed by United Water and Sanitation District, a special water district formed in Elbert County, Colorado, acting through the United Water Acquisition Project Water Activity Enterprise (“United”). United sought to secure various water rights in Weld County. United’s original applications were consolidated in a set of four cases. In response to a motion for determination of questions of law from opposer Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (“FRICO”) in the consolidated cases, the District Court for Water Division 1 (“water court”) concluded that United’s applications failed to demonstrate non-speculative intent to appropriate water. In response to this ruling, United withdrew its applications in the consolidated cases and, a week later, filed a new application in Case No. 16CW3053 for a conditional water storage right that was the subject of this appeal. Pertinent here, United sought to appropriate water for use in a proposed residential development in another county. In support of its new application for a conditional storage right, United offered a new, purportedly binding contract with the landowners of the proposed development. United also claimed for the first time that its status as a special district qualified it for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. FRICO opposed United's application, and the water court determined United's new application likewise failed to demonstrated non-speculative intent to appropriate water. The water court found that United was acting as a water broker to sell to third parties for their use, and not as a governmental agency seeking to procure water to serve its own municipal customers. Consequently, the water court held, United did not qualify for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. United appealed. But concurring with the water court's judgment, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed: United was ineligible for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. View "United Water & Sanitation Dist. v. Burlington Ditch Reservoir & Land Co." on Justia Law

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The Colorado State Engineer, and the Division Engineer for Water Division 3 (the “Engineers”), brought claims against Nick Meagher for injunctive relief, civil penalties, and costs, arising from Meagher’s failure to submit Form 6.1, "Water Use Data Submittal Form," as required by Rule 6.1 of the Rules Governing the Measurement of Ground Water Diversions Located in Water Division No. 3, The Rio Grande Basin (the “Measurement Rules”). Meagher appealed the water court’s orders denying his motion to dismiss the Engineers’ claims and granting the Engineers summary judgment on those claims, contending the court erred by: (1) denying his motion to dismiss because the Engineers’ claims were mooted by his ultimate submission of Form 6.1; (2) granting summary judgment for the Engineers based on an erroneous interpretation of Rule 6.1 and section 37-92-503, C.R.S. (2019), and notwithstanding the existence of genuine issues of material fact as to his culpable mental state and the amount of the civil penalties to be imposed; (3) enjoining future violations of Rule 6.1; and (4) awarding costs and fees to the Engineers. Finding no reversible error, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the water court's judgment. View "Colorado v. Meagher" on Justia Law

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Dr. Steven Jacobs, Casas Limited Partnership #4, LLP, and IQ Investors, LLC (collectively, “Jacobs”) contended the water court erred in: (1) granting summary judgment to the State Engineer and the Division Engineer for Water Division No. 2 (the “Engineers”) and partial summary judgment for the Park Forest Water District (“PFWD”); (2) imposing civil penalties for Jacobs’s violations of the Division Engineer’s order requiring Jacobs to cease and desist unlawfully storing state waters in two ponds on his properties; and (3) certifying its summary judgment rulings as final pursuant to C.R.C.P. 54(b). In 2012, Casas and IQ Investors acquired certain real properties, together with associated water rights and three ponds, in unincorporated El Paso County, Colorado. In order to satisfy the water needs of the properties, Jacobs negotiated with PFWD to join the properties to PFWD, and these parties formalized their arrangement in an Inclusion Agreement. Pursuant to the Inclusion Agreement, PFWD filed an application seeking to amend its augmentation plan to add Jacobs’s ponds to it. In seeking this amendment, PFWD made clear that it was not requesting new water storage rights for the ponds but rather was simply proposing to replace evaporative losses from them. The water court granted PFWD’s application and ruled that the ponds would be augmented consistent with the requirements of PFWD’s augmentation plan. Suspecting that the initial fill after reconstruction was thus not legally obtained, the commissioner requested that Jacobs provide him with the source of the initial fill and advised that if he did not receive such confirmation, then he would seek an order requiring the release of any illegally stored water. Discussion of this issue apparently went on for more than a year. In the course of such discussions, Jacobs took the position that the Inclusion Agreement covered the initial fill. PFWD, however, contended that that Agreement did not do so and that PFWD was not obligated to provide replacement water for the ponds. On December 23, 2016, having not received satisfactory proof that Jacobs’s initial fill of the ponds was lawful, the Division Engineer issued an administrative order (the “2016 Order”) to Jacobs. Jacobs did not comply with the 2016 Order by the deadline set forth therein. The Engineers thus filed a complaint in the water court for injunctive relief, penalties, and costs to enforce the 2016 Order. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the water court properly granted both the Engineers’ summary judgment motion and PFWD’s motion for partial summary judgment, and properly imposed civil penalties. View "Jacobs v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Santa Maria Reservoir Company (“SMRC” or the “Company”) was a mutual reservoir company responsible for storing and releasing water to its shareholders, who owned the right to use that water. SMRC’s water was stored in its two reservoirs: the Santa Maria Reservoir and the Continental Reservoir. SMRC was contacted about leasing water from SMRC’s shareholders to replace depletions to the Rio Grande. In May 2013, the Division Engineer submitted a written report in which he recommended “that th[e] requested change of water right be granted” with one condition: “that such change . . . not expand the consumption of the water right beyond that which has been the historical practice for agricultural purposes.” SMRC met with various opposers to explore what terms and conditions might assuage their concerns. Based on their input, it drafted a proposed decree in which it agreed to replicate accretions (including return flows) to the Rio Grande to prevent injury to other water rights diverting from the Rio Grande. By April 2016, all opposers except appellant Jim Warner had stipulated to the entry of SMRC’s proposed decree. Warner’s opposition was premised on his concern that SMRC’s application, if granted, would interfere with his downstream surface and groundwater rights. Warner, a rancher, owned two parcels of land on which he grew hay for his livestock using flood irrigation. His properties were located in the Closed Basin, generally east and north of land that received the water SMRC delivered through the Rio Grande Canal. Because he flood irrigated, Warner needed the groundwater beneath his lands to stay at a level close enough to the surface to reduce ditch losses and allow water to carry further across his crop land. After review of the water rights at issue and proposed uses, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded Warner was not injured by the water court’s approval of the change-of-use application submitted by SMRC with respect to the water it diverted from the Rio Grande into the Closed Basin. "Because that water is imported water, SMRC is entitled to fully consume all of it. The water would not be in the Closed Basin, much less available for use by Warner and other water users in the Closed Basin, without its importation by SMRC. Thus, rather than cause an injury to Warner, the approval of SMRC’s application simply revealed to him that his past use of return flows from SMRC’s imported water in the Closed Basin was a benefit to which he had no enforceable right; Warner just didn’t know what he had ‘til it was gone." View "Santa Maria Reservoir Co. v. Warner" on Justia Law

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The Luskin Daughters 1996 Trust for the benefit of Lyndell Joy Luskin Ackerman, appealed a water court order dismissing its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as for damages. The complaint alleged that the Trust and Steve and Heather Young owned adjacent parcels of land; that in 2017 the Youngs built a house that destroyed one or more ditches that had historically delivered spring water to the Trust’s property; and that those water rights had been used on the Trust’s property for purposes of irrigation, animal watering, wildlife, and recreation. The water court concluded that in the absence of an application for the determination of a water right, the Trust’s claim of interference by the Youngs with its unadjudicated appropriative rights to springs that arose on the Youngs’ land could not proceed before the water court. It therefore granted the Youngs’ motion, pursuant to C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), (2), or (5), to dismiss. The Colorado Supreme Court found that while appropriation by diverting a specific amount of water and applying it to a beneficial purpose may entitle the appropriator to adjudicate a water right, according to the provisions of the applicable Colorado water law, it cannot afford a priority of use, even with respect to another specific user, without formal adjudication of a water right, in a specific amount, for a specific purpose, and relative to a specific structure for diversion. Therefore, the Court concluded the water court did not err in dismissing the Trust’s complaint. View "The Luskin Daughters 1996 Trust v. Young" on Justia Law

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The purpose of the "1940 Agreement" at issue in this appeal was to resolve the parties’ disputes regarding seepage and evaporation losses from three of the City and County of Denver’s streambed reservoirs located on the South Platte River. Under the 1940 Agreement, in lieu of making releases from the streambed reservoirs to replace seepage and evaporation losses, Denver agreed not to reuse or successively use return flows from water imported from the western slope and used in Denver’s municipal water system. Earlier litigation in Case No. 81CW405 established that this reuse prohibition in the 1940 Agreement applied only to return flows derived from decreed water rights from Colorado River sources with appropriation dates before May 1, 1940 (the date Denver entered into the agreement); Denver could therefore use return flows derived from sources that were appropriated or acquired after that date. The question in this appeal was whether the 1940 Agreement prohibited Denver from using return flows from water imported from the Blue River system under exchange and substitution operations that use water stored in the Williams Fork Reservoir under a 1935 priority as a substitute supply. In a written order, the water court resolved competing motions in Denver’s favor, ruling that Denver’s Blue River system water, which was decreed in 1955 with an appropriation date of June 24, 1946, was a source of water that was not owned, appropriated, or acquired by Denver prior to May 1, 1940, and therefore was not subject to the 1940 Agreement. The water court thus held that Denver could reuse or successively use imported water attributed to the Blue River system. Consolidated Ditches and other opposers appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court concurred with the water court, finding the return flows were not subject to the 1940 Agreement and Denver could reuse or successively use those return flows. View "City & Cty. of Denver v. Consol. Ditches of Water Dist. No. 2" on Justia Law

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In 2008, defendant-appellees Roger Brooks and Veryl Goodnight filed an application with the water court to change the point of diversion of their water right from the Giles Ditch to the Davenport Ditch. The application and the required notice published in the local newspaper misidentified the section and range in which the Davenport Ditch headgate was located. Both, however, referred repeatedly to the Davenport Ditch. Appellees successfully moved to amend the application with the correct section and range shortly afterward. The water court, finding that “no person [would] be injured by the amendment,” concluded that republication of the notice was unnecessary. Eight years later, plaintiff-appellant Gary Sheek filed this action at the water court, seeking judgment on five claims for relief: (1) declaratory judgment that Brooks’s decree was void for insufficient notice; (2) quiet title to a prescriptive access easement for the Davenport Ditch, including ancillary access rights; (3) trespass; (4) theft and interference with a water right; and (5) a permanent injunction prohibiting Brooks from continued use of the Davenport Ditch. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the water court’s conclusion that the published notice was sufficient. As a result, all of the remaining claims should have been dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. View "Sheek v. Brooks" on Justia Law

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In 2008, defendant-appellees Roger Brooks and Veryl Goodnight (together “Brooks”) filed an application in the water court to change the point of diversion of their water right from the Giles Ditch to the Davenport Ditch. The application and the required notice published in the local newspaper misidentified the section and range in which the Davenport Ditch headgate was located. However, both referred repeatedly to the Davenport Ditch. Brooks successfully moved to amend the application with the correct section and range shortly afterward. The water court, finding that “no person [would] be injured by the amendment,” concluded that republication of the notice was unnecessary. Eight years later, plaintiff-appellant Gary Sheek filed this action in the water court, seeking judgment on five claims for relief: (1) declaratory judgment that Brooks’ decree was void for insufficient notice; (2) quiet title to a prescriptive access easement for the Davenport Ditch, including ancillary access rights; (3) trespass; (4) theft and interference with a water right; and (5) a permanent injunction prohibiting Brooks from continued use of the Davenport Ditch. After concluding that sufficient notice was provided, the water court granted Brooks’ motion for summary judgment and deemed the trespass and injunction claims moot in light of that ruling. The court then dismissed the prescriptive easement claim as well as the theft and interference claim for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the water court’s conclusion that the published notice was sufficient. As a result, all of the remaining claims should have been dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. View "Sheek v. Brooks" on Justia Law