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Riparian Rights 
If you really want to pick a fight in our mountains, just threaten to take away somebody’s water. If you live here, you know all about it and if you’re a snowbird you’ve read about it in the Wind and you’ll hear more about it this summer.
Back in 1913, when old Johnny Grant homesteaded the place my grandfather bought four years later, nobody cared much about water rights. Nobody knew what a water court was and when Johnny wanted water he had all he wanted flowing in Roaring Fork 30 feet in front of his 15 X 15 foot cabin.
For a long time most people got their water by gravity in the summer and by busting a hole in the ice and using a bucket in the winter. I don’t know when the first real well was drilled, but it must have been sometime in the 1930s.
Now, of course, there are all kinds of rules about water. You can build only certain kinds of outhouses, and septic tanks are a thing of the past; you have to have a leech field that conforms to about six pages of rules set out by Boulder county. I’ve kept our old outhouse as a reminder of how things were, but I finally had to nail it shut because passersby on Big Owl Road thought it was a convenient comfort station in the wilderness.
Edward, my grandfather, decided the civilized thing was to have a flush toilet, so he installed a septic tank about 40 feet from the stream in the early twenties. Not to worry; that house was torn down years ago. Today, of course, the health department would have a fit, shut it down and then fine you. But in those days it seemed okay; the nearest people downstream were at the Robinson Ranch, about a half mile away, and they had animals that did unspeakable things right in the stream!
Since those days we’ve continued to take water from that stream for all our cabins, first by gravity, then by surface pumps and finally by submerged pumps in shallow wells. And we’ve never filed for water rights. We always just assumed that since two streams crossed our land, we were entitled to the water. Now the government says that’s not so. The water, 50% or 85% of it, depending on whose engineers you believe, belongs to the government.
So there’s a lawsuit, with 51 parties objecting to what the government wants and the Forest Service lawyers came up to face the assembled populace. One of them said she was “feeling a lot of hostility in the room.” I expect if she felt someone was trying to take water she’d thought was hers for the last 72 years she’d be hostile, too.
I used to be more even more protective about our water. We drank it right out of the stream. My grandfather had a little wooden house in the middle of Roaring Fork where meat, poultry, eggs, milk and butter stayed cold all summer long. There was a blue enameled dipper on the side of the brook house, and you could get water anytime you wanted it, and I often did. It was so cold it hurt my nose.
But now the water’s polluted, so we can’t drink it. It has too many E. coli bacteria in it. Maybe that stuff was there when we drank it, in the days when nobody tested their water, and maybe not. At any rate, we worry about it more these days. When I was a kid we’d never heard of giardia. So, like many others, we get our drinking water from Crystal Spring.
I hope the Forest Service loses its case, for a bunch of reasons, but I’ve seen the government legal juggernaut at work close up for a number of years in dozens of cases and I don’t like our chances. Still, for most of us, I doubt it will matter much.
I figure, just by guess and by gosh, that I use maybe 5,000 gallons a year, which isn’t much, even in a stream you can spit across during the spring flood. And I figure the government can
spare it. If there’s a drought and they want my 5.000 gallons I guess we can arm-wrestle for it. Call me naive if you want to, but I expect they’ll be too busy with other things to send the Water Police down Big Owl Road .
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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