All water in Colorado is a public resource; to use water you must have a court order (decree) establishing your right to the use and your priority; and all persons with priorities senior to yours get to take the water first.

Water rights owners may build facilities (such as ditches or pipes) on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use.

A legal framework called the Prior Appropriation system regulates the use of surface water in rivers or tributary groundwater connected to the river basin. This system is mandated by Colorado’s Constitution. It is also referred to as the “priority doctrine.”

Water users with earlier water rights decrees (senior rights) have better rights in times of short supply, and can fill their needs before others (junior rights) can begin to use water. The phrase “first in time/first in right” is a shorthand description of the prior appropriation doctrine.

Adjudication of a water right by the Water Court sets the priority date of the water right, its source of supply, amount, point of diversion, type and place of use. It also confirms that this water right will not cause injury to existing water rights holders.

The right to cross another person’s land to construct, maintain, and operate a water facility, such as a reservoir, ditch, or headgate, has always been an essential feature of Colorado water law. Maintenance may include activities such as cleaning of ditches, weed control, or monitoring water diversions, among others. This right is commonly referred to as an Implied Easement to access for the purposes of water use.

Those who interfere with the operation of a water structure, damage it, or prevent access for those who own the structure, are subject to trespass lawsuits, payment of damages, and restoration of the structure.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources, which includes the State Engineer, division engineers, and water commissioners, has the authority to administer all surface and tributary groundwater in the state of Colorado.

Basics of Colorado Water Law

Read more about the basics of Colorado water law.

Montrose County Water Photo Credit Angela Moyer