DENVER A divided state Supreme Court has ruled for several Bayfield-area ditch companies in a water rights dispute with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
The 4-3 ruling solidified water rights for the King Consolidated Ditch Co. and seven others. The companies wanted to make sure their 1930s-era rights are protected against a plan to fill Vallecito Reservoir twice a year in order to maintain winter flows in the river.
This ruling gives certainty and security to farmers and ranchers out there that they can continue diverting, said Geoff Craig, a lawyer for the ditch companies.
The irrigation companies began trying a decade ago to get a judge to declare that the water rights they secured in 1934 apply to stock watering during the winter.
Local ranchers were worried that a plan by the tribe and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to maintain a minimum flow in the river during the winter could have curtailed the ranchers water use.
Water court Judge Gregory Lyman affirmed the ditches rights in 2009, and disallowed the Southern Ute tribe from intervening in the case, saying the tribe had missed a deadline.
The tribe appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments last September.
Lawyers for the tribe argued the Utes and about 100 other water rights owners on the Pine River should have been served with legal notice that the ditch companies which own the some of the most senior water rights on the stream were going to court to clear up their rights.
This is a declaration that affects not particular water rights, but virtually all senior water rights on the Pine River, said Adam Reeves, a lawyer for the tribe, during Septembers arguments.
But Lyman ruled the tribe did not file its opposition in time, and that the issue at hand did not require the ditches to serve personal legal notices to everyone else who uses the river.
If Lyman had let the tribe intervene, the case could have taken another one or two years and cost the ditch companies tens of thousands of dollars, Lyman wrote in his ruling, which the Supreme Court upheld this month.
The high court was sharply divided on its March 14 ruling.
Dissenting Justice Nancy Rice called the ruling a precedent that opens the floodgates for the scope of already-adjudicated water rights to be revisited and reinterpreted without direct notice to rights holders.
Reach Joe Hanel at firstname.lastname@example.org.