Best Lawyers 2019: Water Law

by Julia Cardi

Water law and its cases often rife with complications 

People in Colorado’s urban areas don’t have much reason to think about the complexity of water rights law in the state. They can generally turn on their taps without worrying about them running dry. Similarly, businesses from out of state who come into Colorado don’t realize water rights issues are much more complicated than the physical considerations. And navigating that complexity is where water law attorneys come in.

“Sometimes we’ll get out-of-state businesses coming to the state [that] are run by people from the Midwest, [who] innocently believe the only question about getting a water supply is a physical one,” said Jim Witwer, of counsel at Davis Graham & Stubbs who has received recognition by Best Lawyers for his water law practice. “What we end up having to do is break the hard news to people that there’s a whole complicated legal overlay to obtain the rights to use water in Colorado that’s more than just, ‘water runs downhill.’” Laughing, he later added that a lot of business for him over his legal career has been created by clients who planned poorly.

Firm partner Zach Miller, also named a Best Lawyer for water law this year, added that Colorado law’s overarching allowance for water use rights holders to change the use as long as they don’t injure anyone else sounds deceptively simple.

“It’s a very complicated process of going to water court and showing that you’re not going to exceed what your historic consumptive use is,” he said.

The recently released Best Lawyers list covers 2019, but looking at cases only in the past year or two doesn’t give an accurate snapshot of water law attorneys’ work that puts them on the list because water law case typically take years to resolve.

Often cases deal in municipal change, in which a municipality acquires water rights decided for a specific usage. Any water rights holder must get approval from the water court system to change the use, whether the type, time or place.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the September 10, 2018 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.

The entire Best Lawyers 2019 list is also available online.