San Miguel River Legal Case – Defending Water for Fish and Wildlife!

Rob Harris“This case will long be remembered for preserving healthy rivers throughout Colorado as a legacy for future generations.”

– Rob Harris, lead attorney defending instream water rights.

Keeping Water Flowing in Colorado’s San Miguel River is Important

The San Miguel River in Colorado is unique, rising in the San Juan Mountains southeast of Telluride and flowing through San Miguel and Norwood canyons, then past Placerville and Nucla – joining the Dolores River in Montrose County. The San Miguel River is one of the last relatively free-flowing rivers in the state. This river is renowned for exciting whitewater boating and tremendous trout fishing. This visually stunning river flows through Colorado’s red sandstone canyon country and is also home to three native fishes that are struggling to survive.

Without water dedicated to staying instream in the San Miguel, these native fishes could be in danger and require protective action under the federal Endangered Species Act. This is why a state instream water rights program is important. Instream water rights help keep water in a river or lake. The rights dedicate minimum water flows between specific points to preserve or improve the natural environment. These can be used to protect fisheries, waterfowl, frogs and salamanders, unique geologic or hydrologic features, and habitat for threatened or endangered fish. The rights can be monitored and enforced, thereby ensuring long-term protections.

Colorado’s Instream Flow Program allows for a fair, collaborative process where local stakeholders have a voice in protecting Colorado’s rivers and streams.

Victory in Defending Colorado’s Environmental Water Rights

Western Resource Advocates has been defending water rights for the environment in the breathtaking San Miguel River. The good news is that in April of 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision upholding the instream water right for the San Miguel River. The court deemed that a senior water rights holder, Farmers Water Development Company, is unaffected by the State of Colorado’s instream water rights on the San Miguel river and affirms that state water rights are a legitimate and essential tool to protect Colorado’s fish and wildlife. The Water Court approved an instream flow protection of up to 325 cubic feet per second, enough to support the vulnerable native fishes in the San Miguel. This not only protects the San Miguel River for fish, but also benefits recreational users.

Most importantly, the legal challenge by Farmers Water Development Company would have threatened the continued vitality of Colorado’s Instream Flow Program, and the court decision allows all current and future instream flow protection efforts to continue.

Healthy Rivers Program

Keeping Water in Rivers & Lakes

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Project Staff

Laura Belanger

Laura Belanger

Water Resources & Environmental Engineer

Robert Harris

Senior Staff Attorney

Bart Miller

Bart Miller

Healthy Rivers Program Director