Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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Boulder County chose to develop "the Bailey Farm" into a public open-space park which would feature several ponds formed from abandoned gravel pits filled with groundwater. The County had to replace out-of-priority stream depletions caused by evaporation from those ponds. To meet this obligation, the County filed an application for underground water rights, approval of a plan for augmentation, a change of water rights, and an appropriative right of substitution and exchange. The water court dismissed the application without prejudice, and the County now appeals that judgment. The components of the County’s application were interdependent, such that approval of the application as a whole hinged on approval of the plan for augmentation, which in turn hinged on approval of the change of water rights. To ensure this change would not unlawfully expand the Bailey Farm's water rights, the County conducted a parcel-specific historical consumptive use (“HCU”) analysis of that right. The water court found this HCU analysis inadequate for several reasons and therefore concluded the County failed to carry its burden of accurately demonstrating HCU. The pivotal consideration in this case was whether the County carried its burden of proving HCU. Like the water court, the Supreme Court concluded it did not. The Court therefore affirmed the water court’s judgment on that basis. View "Cty. of Boulder v. Boulder & Weld Cty. Ditch Co." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a non-attorney trustee of a trust could proceed pro se before the water court. Appellant-trustee J. Tucker appealed the water court’s ruling that as trustee of a trust, he was not permitted to proceed because he was representing the interests of others. He also appealed the court’s order granting appellee Town of Minturn’s application for a finding of reasonable diligence in connection with a conditional water right. Appellant’s pro se issue was one of first impression before the Supreme Court, and the Court held that the water court correctly ruled that as a non-attorney trustee, appellant could not proceed pro se on behalf of the trust. In light of that determination, the Court did not address appellant’s other arguments regarding the sufficiency of the verification. View "Tucker v. Town of Minturn" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this matter centered on whether Denver could properly use quantified transmountain lawn irrigation return flows (LIRFs) as a substitute supply of water for its Civil Action (C.A.)3635 exchanges. The Court held that that properly quantified transmountain LIRFs are legally indistinguishable from reusable transmountain effluent and, therefore, the water court correctly determined that Denver could use its properly quantified transmountain LIRFs as substitute supply for the appropriative rights of exchange in C.A. 3635. In addition, the Court affirmed the water court's holding that junior appropriators could not claim injury premised solely upon the proper operation of the C.A. 3635 exchanges. View "Denver v. Englewood" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case centered on two water rights cases involving Raftopoulos Brothers (Raftopoulos) and Vermillion Ranch Limited Partnership (Vermillion). In Case No. 11SA86, the Court vacated the portions of the water court’s order interpreting the phrase "all other beneficial uses" in a 1974 change decree regarding Raftopoulos’s absolute water rights and whether Raftopoulos had abandoned any right to use the decreed water for commercial or industrial purposes. The Court reversed the portion of the water court’s order decreeing Raftopoulos’s requested new conditional water storage rights to the extent the decree permits the water to be used for industrial and commercial purposes. In Case No. 11SA124, the Court reversed the water court’s order granting Vermillion’s application for a finding of reasonable diligence for previously decreed conditional water storage rights and granting Vermillion’s application for a new conditional water storage right. View "Vermillion Ranch Limited Partnership v. Raftopoulos Brothers" on Justia Law

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Respondents Christopher Roinestad and Gerald Fitz-Gerald were overcome by poisonous gases while cleaning a grease clog in a sewer near the Hog's Breath Saloon & Restaurant. The district court concluded that Hog's Breath caused respondents' injuries by dumping substantial amounts of cooking grease into the sewer thereby creating the clog and consequent build up of the gas. On summary judgment, the district court found the saloon liable under theories of negligence and off-premises liability and granted respondents damages. The saloon carried a commercial general liability policy issued by Petitioner Mountain States Mutual Casualty Company which sought a ruling it had no duty to indemnify Hog's Breath. The district court agreed that under the terms of the policy, the insurer had no duty under a pollution exclusion clause. The appellate court reversed the ruling in favor of the insurer, finding the pollution exclusion clause was ambiguous and that its application to cooking grease (a common waste product) could lead to absurd results and negate essential coverage. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the saloon released enough grease to amount to a discharge of a pollutant, and that the insurance policy pollution exclusion clause barred coverage in this case. View "Mountain States Mutual Casualty Company v. Roinestad" on Justia Law

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Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance filed a complaint alleging that it was entitled to a hearing on an application for permit to drill pursuant to section 34-60-108(7), C.R.S. (2011), of the Oil and Gas Conservation Act. The district court dismissed the complaint. The court of appeals reversed the district court, holding that under subsection 108(7), Grand Valley Citizens were entitled to a hearing because it had a filed a petition on a matter within the jurisdiction of the Commission. After its review, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals judgment, holding that section 34-60-108(7) requires a hearing only for rules, regulations, and orders. Permits are governed by section 34-60-106(1)(f), which grants the Oil and Gas Commission broad authority to promulgate rules governing the permitting process, including the authority to determine who may request a hearing. View "Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission" on Justia Law

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With the approval of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), in 2005 the Public Service Company of Colorado (Xcel) began constructing a coal-fired electric power unit known as "Comanche 3." When Xcel sought to recover a portion of its construction costs nearly four years later in a rate proceeding, Petitioner Leslie Glustrom intervened. Petitioner sought to introduce testimony that Xcel acted improperly and, consequently, should not recover its costs. The PUC excluded most of her testimony, a ruling that Petitioner challenged. Petitioner separately challenged the depreciation rate and the possibility that Comanche 3 might not be "used and useful" at the time rates went into effect. The PUC denied her challenges, and the district court affirmed. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the PUC did not abuse its discretion when it struck substantial portions of Petitioner's testimony pursuant to the Colorado Rules of Evidence. Further, the depreciation rate approved by the PUC was established pursuant to law and in accordance with the evidence. Lastly, the PUC was free to exercise its discretion in departing from a strict application of the "used and useful" principle. Petitioner failed to meet her burden in showing why such a departure here would result in a rate that is unjust and unreasonable in its consequences. View "Glustrom v. Colorado Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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The two appeals consolidated for resolution in this case both arose from an attempt by John C. Harrison, acting as personal representative for the estate of Nolan G. Thorsteinson and trustee of The Margie (Dotts) M. Thorsteinson Trust, to avoid an order declaring abandoned a disputed 1.04 c.f.s. interest in the Mexican Ditch. Harrison appealed directly to the Supreme Court adverse rulings of the Water Court in the two cases. With regard to Harrison's Application for a Change of Water Right, the water court granted the Engineers' motion to dismiss at the close of Harrison's case, finding that he was required but failed, to establish the historic use of the right as to which he sought a change in the point of diversion. With regard to Harrison's protest to the inclusion of the interests he claimed in the Mexican Ditch on the Division Engineer's decennial abandonment list, the water court granted the Engineer's motion for abandonment, as a stipulated remedy for Harrison's failure to succeed in his change application. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that because Harrison neither proved historic use of the right for which he sought a change nor was excepted from the requirement that he do so as a precondition of changing its point of diversion; and because denying a change of water right for failing to prove the historic use of the right did not amount to an unconstitutional taking of property, the water court's dismissal of Harrison's application was affirmed. But because, Harrison did not stipulate to an order of abandonment as the consequence of failing to succeed in his change application, only as the consequence of failing to timely file an application reflecting historic use, the water court's order granting the Engineers' motion for abandonment was reversed. View "Thorsteinson v. Simpson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jesse Reynolds and the owners of several other ditches that divert water from La Jara Creek appealed an order of the Water Court that denied their claim for declaratory relief. Plaintiffs sought a declaration that their appropriative rights to creek water were not limited to water flowing into the creek from the San Luis Valley Drain Ditch. Without directly addressing the merits of their claim, the water court granted summary judgment in favor of the State and Division Engineers (as well as other defendants) on the grounds that substantially the same issue had been litigated and decided against Plaintiffs in a prior declaratory action. The court concluded that all of the water rights of the parties in La Jara Creek were not only at issue, but were finally determined in that prior litigation, and therefore Plaintiffs’ claims were precluded. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that Plaintiffs' claims had not been determined in the prior litigation (either expressly or by implication), and that the grant of summary judgment was inappropriate. The Court reversed the water court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Reynolds v. Cotten" on Justia Law

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This appeal came from a judgment and decree of the water court and the Alamosa County District Court in two consolidated cases. The combination of the two involved an amended plan for water management adopted by Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (Subdistrict). Several parties objected to the approval of the Subdistrict's plan for ground water management. After two trials, the trial court determined the Plan to be "conceptually compatible" with the legal requirements of ground water management plans and the intent of the legislature in enacting SB 04-222. Among a series of findings, it found that (1) the Plan properly sought to stabilize the storage level of the unconfined aquifer at a "sustainable" level; and (2) the strategies proposed to meet that goal were reasonable and supported by the evidence. However, the trial court sent the Plan back to the Subdistrict board of managers and District board of directors for "further consideration and amendment because it lack[ed] detail, grant[ed] discretion with no guidance, fail[ed] to acknowledge the replacement of injurious depletions as a priority, and simply is not a 'comprehensive and detailed plan'" as required by statute. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the Plan as approved and decreed, adequately addressed the replacement of well depletions that injure adjudicated senior surface water rights, along with restoring and maintaining sustainable aquifer levels in accordance with the applicable statutes. "The Subdistrict bears the burden of going forward and the burden of proof to demonstrate that annual replacement plans prevent material injury to adjudicated senior surface water rights caused by ongoing and past well depletions that have future impact." The Court affirmed the water court and Alamosa County District Court's decisions. View "In re Subdistrict No. 1" on Justia Law