Water law covers the range from obtaining and maintaining water rights for surface water; securing well permits for the use of groundwater and safeguarding transport of water rights via ditches and easements. Water rights are overseen by the Water Courts which work in tandem with the State Engineer’s Office. Water rights in Colorado are governed by the doctrine of Prior Appropriation.
Water Law: Frequently Asked Questions
What is a prior appropriation?
Prior Appropriation is often summarized as “first in time is first in right.” An appropriation occurs when an individual takes water from a source and puts it to beneficial use such as crop irrigation. The first person to appropriate water from a particular source and get it approved by the Water Courts will have a right to use that water which is superior to the rights of all persons who appropriate water after him.
Once I have a water right can I use it for any purpose?
No. Water rights are specific as to place of use, purpose and amount. Once you have obtained a Water Right you cannot change any of these elements without applying to the Water Courts for approval of the change. If the Court determines that no other water users will be harmed by the change then they will likely approve your application.
I’ve just purchased property that has a ditch across it. Can I fill it? Can I use the water that flows through?
A decreed water right includes the right to cross the lands of others in order to put the water to beneficial use. This is frequently done by the construction of ditches in order to transport the water to where it is needed. Interfering with such a ditch can lead to liability for any damages resulting to the Water Right owner for his loss of the use of his water.
In addition, even though there is water flowing across your land, it does not mean that you have a right to use that water. Unless you have obtained a water right for it, that water belongs to someone else and you cannot use it to water your crops or even allow your animals to drink from the ditch without facing possible liability for interfering with a water right.
This does not mean that a third party can enter your property without your permission and start digging a ditch for their water. In order to do so they must obtain your permission for an easement or condemn a right-of-way through the court system.
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