Mike & Jim Kruse P'ship v. CottenAnnotate this Case
The water court that issued the decision at the heart of this appeal conducted a four-day trial with thousands of pages of exhibits and testimony of experts to decide the meaning of a decree finalized in April 1933. The court "seized" upon a 1936 photograph to declare the decree ambiguous. To cure the ambiguity, the court consulted additional evidence extrinsic to the original proceedings. Ultimately, the court found the water was decreed to a ditch at issue in the appeal. The parties challenged the water court's reliance on the 1936 photograph and extrinsic evidence. After review of the water court's order, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed, finding that there existed a conflict in Colorado case law as to which materials a court could rely on to decide whether a decree of water rights was ambiguous. "While future litigation may require us to reconcile these cases . . . [e]ach method leads to the same result here: The creek water at issue is not decreed to the ditch." Since the photograph was extrinsic to the proceedings that birthed the decree, the water court erred by relying on it to characterize the decree as ambiguous. "Under any of the three interpretive approaches, evidence extrinsic to the underlying proceedings is admissible only after a finding of ambiguity, not to create the ambiguity."