Each of the arid western states, including Colorado, has adopted and enforces an appropriative water rights system. At its most basic level, that system functions under the principle of “first in time is first in right”. This means whoever first claims the water for beneficial purposes has the right to utilize the water over subsequent claims.

All of the arid western states employs a regimen – either judicial or administrative – which authorizes the use of water, monitors that usage through various state agencies, and penalizes violations of the conditions of the underlying permit or decree.

Water is of extreme importance to the State of Colorado. It’s necessary for a variety of domestic, agricultural, recreational, and other purposes. This includes:

  • Domestic – The domestic use of water involves a variety of purposes such as drinking, bathing, cooking, or landscape care.
  • Recreational – Swimming, fishing, boating, and other activities are popular uses of water and require large amounts of it.
  • Industrial – The industrial use of water includes product creation and processing, washing, cooling, or the transportation of a product. Chemical, food, paper, and smelting products and factories rely heavily on water utilization.
  • Municipal – Cities utilize water rights for a variety of purposes regarding their local residents and industries.
  • Aesthetic – Fountains, artificial bodies of water, and other appealing items are another common use for water.

Due to the variety of needs regarding utilization of water, there are some of the features of Colorado water law which have historically caused problems to new residents include the right of the holder of a water rights decree to transport his water over land belonging to another. Often times there is no deeded easement for irrigation or supply ditches, which means that their existence cannot be discovered from simply reading the documents in that parcel’s chain of title. Further, simply because an irrigation or supply ditch crosses a third party’s land gives her or him absolutely no right of use of that water. Another unusual feature of Colorado water law is that the appropriator of a water right has a constitutional power of eminent domain for the purpose of condemning a ditch or pipeline right-of-way across the land of another. Of course, as in other condemnation cases, just compensation must be determined and paid to the owner whose land is burdened by that structure.

Another topic Colorado water lawyers represent is with a new homeowner who may come in contact relates to subdivisions. Typically then a developer purchases a parcel of agricultural land and creates a residential subdivision, the agricultural irrigation water provider will require that the developer create a homeowners’ association for the purpose of taking delivery of the irrigation water and paying the provider’s charges for same. The administration of the irrigation water then becomes one of the responsibilities of the homeowners’ association, including but not limited to the scheduled rotation of that water among the lots within the development, maintenance of the ditches or underground pipeline system, collection of each homeowner’s pro rata share of the operational and maintenance costs and the enforcement of association bylaws, rules or regulations governing the receipt and use of irrigation water.

Steve Mathis of this firm has over twenty years’ experience in the practice of Colorado water law. He has also served Montrose County for fourteen years as its Director upon the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which is a state body which was formed in 1937. The principal legislative mandates to the River District include developing, protecting and preserving Colorado’s allocation of water of the Colorado River in accordance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and the body of water law which has developed thereunder.


Helpful Resources

For more information on the River District, see: www.crwcd.org

Colorado Judicial Branch Water Forms