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Barrett v. Division of Water Resources.

2024 COA 23. No. 23CA0243. Water Right Determination and Administration Act of 1969—Water Judges—Jurisdiction—CRCP 12(b)(1).

February 29, 2024

Barrett and Cossey (jointly, Cossey) own 13 exempt well permits (the Cossey permits), which are licenses issued by the Office of the State Engineer, also known as the Division of Water Resources (the state engineer), under the Exempt Well Statute, which is part of the Water Right Act. The Cossey permits authorize the construction and use of 13 residential wells, and the permits are exempt from certain administrative requirements of the Water Right Act. Harold and Drue Priestley and the HDP Revocable Trust (collectively, the Priestleys) filed an administrative complaint (the Priestley complaint) with the state engineer seeking revocation of the Cossey permits on grounds that Cossey improperly completed the applications for the Cossey permits. The state engineer assigned the Priestleys’ case to a hearing officer, who granted summary judgment to Cossey and dismissed the Priestley complaint but denied Cossey’s request for damages, attorney fees, or other sanctions against the Priestleys. Cossey filed exceptions to the order, which were denied. Cossey then filed a complaint for judicial review of the state engineer’s decision in district court (the Cossey complaint) asserting that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction over the claims he pleaded in the Cossey complaint under the judicial review provision of the State Administrative Procedure Act. The district court dismissed the Cossey complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under CRCP 12(b)(1), concluding that the Cossey complaint had to be filed in water court because it involves a water matter.

On appeal, Cossey argued that the district court improperly dismissed the Cossey complaint. Cossey maintained that the district court could exercise subject matter jurisdiction over the claims because they were limited to the 11 issues addressed in the exceptions, which are not water matters. A claim seeking interpretation of the Water Right Determination and Administration Act of 1969 (the Act) is inherently a “water matter” because it fundamentally involves determinations regarding the right to use water, the quantification of a water right, or a change in a previously decreed water right. Where, as here, a party’s request for a determination of the legal standard for issuance of a well permit and for distribution of water in accordance with a court-issued decree constitutes a water matter because the request implicates the overall management of the state’s water resources. Because some of Cossey’s claims involve interpretation of the Act as it pertains to exempt well permits, those claims implicate the overall management of the state’s water resources and are thus water matters. Accordingly, the water court has exclusive jurisdiction over those claims, as well as ancillary jurisdiction over Cossey’s other claims. Therefore, the district court properly dismissed the claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under CRCP 12(b)(1).

The judgment was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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