July 27, 2008

Trial Set for Sand Dunes’ Water Right: An Investors Group Opposes Feds’ Claim.

By Matt Hildner, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

Jul. 27--ALAMOSA -- The federal government will try to secure its right to groundwater beneath the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on Wednesday, when a three-week trial is scheduled to open in the Water Court for Division 3.

Attorneys with the Department of Justice filed a claim to a right that would entitle it to all unappropriated water in the unconfined aquifer needed to maintain ground water levels in the park. The "in-place" use would not require the diversion of water.

The government's application seeks to maintain water table levels sufficient to support park resources, although that right would be subject to natural hydrologic variations and other water rights in existence prior to the park's creation in 2000. It also would be subject to the operation of the Bureau of Reclamation's San Luis Valley Project, which ships groundwater to the Rio Grande.

The unconfined aquifer lies underneath all of the park and varies in depth from 50 feet to several hundred feet, according to documents filed by the federal government.

It is the shallower of the two groundwater bodies that sit beneath the San Luis Valley. The other, an artesian aquifer, is commonly referred to as the confined aquifer. Opposition to the federal government's claim included as many as eight separate parties in the summer of 2007. Those objectors have since been whittled to Cotton Creek Circles, an investors' group that has future water development rights in the San Luis Valley.

Cotton Creek also opposed the state rules governing the use of the confined aquifer, pressing its case all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it lost in March.

In a trial brief filed earlier this month, attorneys for Cotton Creek argued that the U.S. was not entitled to all unappropriated water in the aquifer without proof that specific water levels were required to protect the purposes, uses and natural resources of the park.

Judge O. John Kuenhold will preside over the trial.


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