In Praise of Fair Colorado, by Greg Hobbs

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado Lore – January 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

In Praise of Fair Colorado – The Practice of Poetry, History, and Judging
by Greg Hobbs
Published in 2004 by Bradford Publishing Co.
ISBN 1-932779-02-7

WHEN IT COMES to working with words, Colorado Supreme Court Associate Justice Greg Hobbs comes close to serving as a renaissance man. He can craft a legal opinion that is elegant even though it bristles with citations, he can explain and explore important if obscure facets of Colorado history with a grace and clarity that makes me jealous, and he writes poetry that is more than passable.

In Praise of Fair Colorado is an anthology of his work, collected from various law-review articles, court opinions, public presentations, and unpublished poems. The topics range from his love for our mountains to the historical intricacies of Colorado’s often-arcane but always-important water law.

For many of this magazine’s readers, the water material (almost half of the book’s 427 pages) will be the featured attraction. Hobbs delights in the history of water use in the Americas, going back to the Anasazi reservoirs at Mesa Verde and the Incan delivery system at Machu Picu, and devotes much attention to the origins of “The Law of the River” — the 1922 Colorado River Compact that controls everything from harvests in Otero County to swimming pools in Los Angeles.

There’s also a clear “Primer on Colorado Water Law,” an engaging explanation of the evolution of in-stream flow rights in our state, and a history of droughts and their effects on our institutions. For instance, the drought of 1890-94 in eastern Colorado led to new laws that allowed for water exchanges, as well as changes in use from, say, agricultural to municipal.

His writing is straightforward and clear: “Early in the history of the West, Congress realized that water, a public resource, would have to be managed differently there than in the eastern United States, an area where water was abundant. Colorado became a territory in 1861. In the Mining Act of 1866, Congress provided that the customs and laws of the states and territories would govern water use within their boundaries. Colorado chose the ‘prior appropriation’ system as its basic water law for the allocation and administration of surface water and tributary groundwater (water that is connected to the surface stream). The earlier in time a person began appropriating and using water, the more senior the claim to that water.”

I wish I could explain it as well when someone asks me; if you’re interested in Colorado water, this is one book you’ll want to read and keep for reference. Hobbs is, after all, the water expert on the Colorado Supreme Court, and thus there is no higher authority on Colorado Water Law. We can feel fortunate that he makes his knowledge so accessible.

But there’s much more to enjoy here: book reviews, short essays about montane places and their people, a re-enactment of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, a long and detailed but quite readable history of Colorado’s clean-air laws, and an insider’s account of how our state supreme court operates. It’s hard to pick a favorite from these, but one piece I enjoyed started this way:

“Lawyers and judges are literate people. They master words and their nuances. They explain the law and justice clearly and concisely to decision makers and the community.

“Until they start writing. Then the glop plops back on the page.

“When this happens to me – like every time I start to write – I try to re-convince myself, ‘I can do this!’ ‘Back to the basics,’ I remind myself. ‘Two of a piece, sound and sense.’

“I think being a good writer takes being a good sign reader and a good mapmaker. Words are signs we post to map the understanding we have assimilated for the purpose of mapping others to a better understanding. Good brief or opinion writing is hard work. And great fun. The fun’s in looking back at the path you smoothed through the swamp.”

Our arid state may lack physical swamps, but it abounds in metaphorical bogs, and Hobbs provides a smooth path toward a greater understanding of Colorado – especially our water laws. It’s a book that rewards a leisurely reading for pleasure, and will then serve as a productive reference when it’s time to think about water.