Water Administration in Colorado Uses Doctrine System
For more than 130 years, Colorado has used a system of water allocation known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. Under this doctrine, the first appropriator of water has a senior right to the water available and that right must be satisfied before any subsequent rights junior to that right can receive water. Simply put, the Prior Appropriation Doctrine is “First in Time, First in Right.”
The doctrine evolved from practices used to settle disputes in the mining industry. The gold rush to Colorado in the late 1850’s brought experienced miners who allocated water based upon the same theory as land ownership, the first to occupy the land staked their “claim” to it and those following had no right to it. This system was eventually applied to water ownership disputes.
The San Luis Valley has the honor of being home to the oldest ditch in Colorado, the San Luis Peoples Ditch, which draws water from Culebra Creek. Use of this ditch was initiated in 1852 and diversion of water from other area streams soon followed.
Appropriations were made from the San Antonio and Conejos Rivers in 1855. In 1860, the Fred Etter Ditch diverted water from Ute Creek for use at the local U.S. Army fort, in what later became Fort Garland. Diversions for irrigation use from the Rio Grande and Saguache Creek both began in 1866. Most other creeks in the San Luis Valley saw diversions for irrigation before Colorado became a state in 1876.
By the beginning of the 1890’s, many stream systems were over appropriated. Ditch companies were actively constructing reservoirs to store winter and spring runoff. In addition, new sources of water were being pursued, which included transmountain diversions and ground water. Changes of water rights, exchanges, transfer of water rights and “loan statutes” were issues that had to be addressed by the Office of the State Engineer by the turn of the century.
Some areas of the state have rivers, creeks, and aquifers where new appropriations can still be made. However, the surface and groundwater sources in the San Luis Valley have already been allocated to existing water rights and Compact requirements. Appropriations from the aquifers of the San Luis Valley for new high capacity (>50 gpm) wells were discontinued in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Colorado holds the unique distinction of being the first state to provide for the distribution of water by public officials. In 1879, the legislature created a part of the present administrative system. It provided for the division of the state into ten water districts, nine of these in the South Platte valley and one in the Arkansas drainage.
In 1881, the Colorado legislature established the Office of the State Irrigation Engineer, referred to today as the State Engineer’s Office, also known as the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The agency’s primary responsibility is the administration of the Prior Appropriation Doctrine by maintaining a list of water rights on each stream in order of priority. The priority of each water right was determined by the district courts based upon the date the structure for the water right was constructed and the water placed to beneficial use.
In 1887, the state created a Superintendent of Irrigation, who is known today as the Division Engineer, to supervise water commissioners within each division. The seven water divisions are geographically located to encompass the major river drainages in the state: the South Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, the Gunnison, the Colorado, the North Platte/Yampa, and the San Juan/Dolores.
San Luis Valley is within Water Division 3 which covers approximately 8,000 square miles. The Water Division 3 office is located in Alamosa, with satellite offices in Saguache, Monte Vista, and Antonito. Approximately 600,000 acres of irrigated land are located in Water Division 3.
The Rio Grande is the principal river in the division; and the Conejos River is its largest tributary. The headwaters of the Rio Grande are on the Continental Divide west of Creede and the river runs generally eastward to Alamosa where it turns south, eventually crossing the state line into New Mexico. The equitable apportionment of water in the Rio Grande and its tributaries between the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas is the purpose of an interstate Compact, ratified by Congress in 1939. The Rio Grande Compact will be detailed in a future article.