Colorado's Water Rights Explained

This is the third in a weekly series celebrating Colorado Water 2012 in the San Luis Valley.

In Colorado water is a separate property right that can be sold separately from the land. This is different from the Riparian Doctrine where the water rights are attached to the land that is adjacent to the stream or the river.

Colorado administers water under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. This means that those who put the water to beneficial use first are entitled to get their water first during times of shortage.

The Colorado Constitution declared that all water in every stream belonged to the people of the state and was subject to appropriation. In 1879, Colorado established the Water Commissioner to distribute water rights in priority based upon the principle of “First in Time... First in Right”.

Sooo... “Priority of right to water by priority of appropriation is older than the state constitution itself, and has existed from the date of the earliest appropriations of water within the boundaries of Colorado,” (Farmers Highline Canal& Reservoir Co) which was established way back on April 10, 1852, with the San Luis Peoples Ditch.

What this means in water lingo is that those with earlier decreed rights “prior” have senior rights and can divert their water before later decreed rights. It is a matter of timing, at least as far as acquiring the right goes.

The second part of the “appropriation” system requires the agency (private person or business) put the water to beneficial use according to the procedures of the law. This requires the appropriator to have a plan to divert, store, capture, control or posses the water in order to put it to beneficial use.

What is beneficial use? This is a moving target and can depend on the economy, the community, and the values and ethics of the users. There are, however, recognized beneficial uses: augmentation, CWCB in-stream flows, commercial, domestic, dust suppression, evaporation from a gravel pit, fire protection, fish and wildlife, flood control, industrial, irrigation, mined land reclamation, municipal, nature centers, power generation, water and gas production, recreation reservoirs and in-stream flows, release of storage for boating and fishing, snowmaking and stock watering.

The point is there are a lot of uses coming out of a pool that is only just so big. Is there enough? Look what the wind blew in - On October 30, 2011 the world population hit a projected seven billion people What does that look like? For most that is kind of unimaginable so let’s put it into something that seems a bit closer to home - there are about five million people here in the state of Colorado. Colorado’s population is projected to double to between 8.6 and 10 million people by 2050.

This is a resource demand many may not really understand. The San Luis Valley is currently feeling this resource demand due to the decline in aquifers and the restrictions that this will place on farming lifestyles. Rightfully so. All are injured in one respect or another by what has happened or will happen here. Valley residents need to fix the situation. No one feels that a million acre feet decline in the Valley’s aquifer is an acceptable, let alone sustainable situation. To that end there is a bigger lion on the horizon.

Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) is a report from the Colorado Water Conservation Board that been analyzing the difference between supply and “demands” (notice it does not say needs). The report looks out over this time period between now and the 2050 and has fondly called the difference between the supply and the demand the GAP. For most in rural places because of farming areas it is a gap, but looking closely at the demand being asked by the urban centers of the Front Range it is much more of a canyon and it makes the future of Colorado’s open space and agriculture look dim.

Notice the GAP differences in acre feet (AF) between the Front Range basins and the two rural basins in the charts accompanying this article (information courtesy of CDM.)

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about these numbers. They are based on medium demands in all areas at a 100 percent success rate of all proposed water projects and programs.

The bottom line is that the population growth will cause municipal water demands to double. Colorado has no new supply; no one can make more water. Coloradoans can only use the tools available that is conservation - That means every one not just farmers and ranchers, but golf courses, lawn sizes, medians, water efficient plants in urbanscapes, along with water efficient appliances and utilities. It means investment in water projects and processes that last and are true investments in infrastructure. It also means defining supply, so that uses can be studied and “new” water supply plans can be defined.

Finally, it is the recognition that ag water doesn’t become the main GAP supplier, but the GAP survivor and remains the vital part of the infrastructure that it is today; meeting both consumptive and non-consumptive needs well beyond 2050.

Let’s all work together to meet Colorado’s future water needs in a sustainable way. Coloradoans face a challenge: providing future generations with enough water.

Judy Lopez is the director of the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation & Education Initiative, 550 Worth Street (PO Box 424), Center Colorado 81125; Office 754-3400; Fax 754 3109; Cell 580-5300

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