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Colorado has had water courts for 50 years. Meet one of the referees who helps make them work

As water supplies come under more stress across the West, some states are seeing increased legal activity related to water rights.

Bloomberg has reportedsome states, including Utah, are setting up specific water courts, or judges who deal mainly in water law.

Colorado has had this kind of a setup for more than 50 years. Holly Strablizky is a water referee for the Water Court in Colorado. The Show talked with her about what her job entails.

Interview highlights

What exactly is a water referee?

HOLLY STRABLIZKY: Well, back in 1969 the legislature created a specialty court, the Water Court, in Colorado. Water rights have always been adjudicated by, through the judiciary. So, it got kind of clogged up,, to a point where our legislature was asked to create this court. And we have a water judge who is a district court judge as well. So he's got a lot of other work going on other than water.

And so in their infinite wisdom — and I, I truly mean that — the legislature thought through that we'd have one person — the water referee — be working just on the water rights applications so that the water judge could have time to do all of the other things that he has to do as a district court judge. And, so I really, all I do is work on water applications.

So it's your job to adjudicate everything water-related that you can adjudicate, so that the judge is able to do all the other things they need to do and only adjudicate the water things that, that you're not able to?

STRABLIZKY: Well, what we, what we do is I just adjudicate water rights. There are other issues that may come up through complaints, that go directly to the water judge and stay with the water judge.

For instance, if a division engineer is enforcing a administration, that is a complaint that goes in front of the water judge. So when somebody needs a water right, they file an application with the water court. And it's first goes to the water judge and the water judge actually orders, he refers it down to me — referee in an order of the court.

So then really what I do is I take that water rights application, and I allow for time to work on it without having to be, have that application, subject to the rules of civil procedure. I work with the applicant and other parties to create a ruling and then the, it is the water judge's job to look at my ruling and basically sign it, decree my ruling.

Do you see water law as being a particularly complicated or complex area of law relative to any other kind?

STRABLIZKY: I do, I mean ... only certain people really want to do it. Some other people who are not interested, I ironically call it a very dry area of law.

Do you foresee your job changing or evolving at all in the near future because there's so much change potentially coming to the Colorado River and other sources of water throughout the West?

STRABLIZKY: I, I think unfortunately, my job's not gonna change. I do think, however, my boss's job as a water judge, he is going to have, have more impactful cases coming through. There's more conflict in the Colorado River basin in Colorado. So I think that as the system gets tighter, our water judge is gonna see more complaints and more interesting stuff to do.

Do you think that maybe it would make sense for other states and even the federal government to set aside specific courts or specific judges that just deal with water?

STRABLIZKY: You know, I think there's challenges to that. We have been significantly lucky here in Colorado as ... we started putting adjudicated water rights through the judicial system, through the courts before the beginning of statehood. So we were lucky enough to start it that way. It's a thing called notice, right. It's a thing in a normal court case, you have to serve the party that you're suing. Perhaps, if that makes sense. And in our water court, how we give notice is we have this thing called a resume and we publish it and that is deemed Notice, inquiry to everybody in the state. If you come along like three years later, after that water rights been granted, you really don't have the ability to complain about it because you had the opportunity three years early earlier to get into the case and work through whatever the issue would be. If you don't have notice to everybody, then you have to redo it. States are redoing their water rights.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.