Water rights in Western Colorado are a very complex topic and play a pivotal role in managing your property. There is an old saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. Although I’m not sure how many people (if any) have died fighting for water rights, it certainly has been the cause of many disputes over the years. Here is a general explanation that may be helpful.

Types of Water Rights

There are several different types of water rights in Colorado. Well rights, spring rights, and irrigation water rights can be further broken down into “Decreed” and “Reservoir” water rights. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on decreed and reservoir water rights.

The Start of The System

All irrigation water in Western Colorado begins in the form of snow. High in the mountains, the winter snow begins to melt in the springtime. This melt fills various creeks and flows to the valley floors below in the warmer months.

Decreed Water Rights

As the western land began to be settled in the late 1800s, reservoirs and ditches were constructed to hold and deliver water to various pieces of land. Water rights were established in Colorado by the “first in use, first in right” method. Meaning the person who first diverted water to his land was granted priority rights and those who followed were granted lower priority rights in the order that they were established.

These rights are typically referred to as decreed or adjudicated water rights, meaning that the courts established the rightful use of a certain amount of water for a particular piece of land. Most times (but not always) these rights are directly tied to a piece of land and are part of the property deed and passed from one owner of the property to the next.

What is a Share of Decreed Water?

Water is typically measured in Cubic Feet Per Second (CFS). A water right for decreed water might be expressed in a fraction of a share such as; an undivided one-half interest in and to the 1.0 c.f.s.  decreed to the Carbon Ditch as Priority H-25. This would mean that the user has a right to .5 c.f.s. In the Carbon Ditch and can and Priority H-25 is the level of priority to use that water.

To further explain, as the snow begins to melt in early spring (usually April 1 of each year), water can be placed in the ditch. This is referred to as “free water” or “early water” and is typically available to all property owners along a ditch whether they have water rights or not.

As the people with water rights begin to use their water, if there is not enough to go around, the free water ends, and only users with water rights can utilize the amount of water they have a right to. If water is plentiful and everyone can get their rightful share nothing is done and everyone is happy. However, as the water begins to deplete, water begins to get shut off to certain users beginning with the lowest priority water right. This ensures that the highest priority water right owner has access to their rightful amount of water the longest.

All water must be measured before it can be diverted. The device for this measurement is called a Parshall Flume. A Parshall flume is a fixed hydraulic structure set in a ditch and used to measure water flow. It allows an accurate reading of the water volume by accelerating the flow rate to match the depth of the flume. Water must be measured in order to ensure the appropriate amount of water is being delivered.

Decreed water is allowed to flow continuously until such time it gets shut off due to higher-priority users placing “calls” for their water. Sometimes this means only water for a month or two or other times it can last the whole year–depending on the seasonal water supply.

Reservoir Water Rights

Reservoir water is water that is stored in a reservoir or a series of reservoirs and owned by shareholders. These shareholders can buy and sell their shares of water separately from any land purchase. As long as the water can be delivered from the reservoir to a particular piece of land, these shares can be used on or delivered to multiple different parcels.

What is a Share of Reservoir Water? 

A share of reservoir water means nothing outside of your water system. One share of water from one reservoir may be equal to 1,000 shares of water in another. You must quantify a share in the form of CFS or cubic feet per second in order to establish the value of a share.

Each reservoir company has an established amount of water that equates to each share. In one company, 1 share of water may equate to 1 c.f.s. and in another company, 1 share might equate to 5 c.f.s. It is imperative that you establish the amount of water a share represents in order to know the value your reservoir shares.

The amount of water for each share can vary drastically from year to year depending on the amount of water stored in the reservoir. Every spring, the reservoir company’s board of directors meets with shareholders and establishes the amount of water that will be available for each shareholder.

Reservoir water is also measured in c.f.s, however, it is ordered for a period of days and the amount delivered comes off of the total amount available.

For instance, you may own 10 shares of water which equates to 10 c.f.s. of water. If you order 0.5 c.f.s. for 4 days, at the end of the 4-day run, your water would be shut back off and you would have had 2 c.f.s. of your 10 c.f.s. allotment delivered, leaving you with 8 c.f.s. of water to be ordered throughout the remainder of the season.

1 CFS = 1.983 acre-feet per day = 646,320 gallons = 2447 cubic meters of water

Portioning Your Reservoir Water Shares for Irrigation

To irrigate effectively, you must portion your shares of water across many months of the growing season. How much water do you need for irrigation? That is dependent on several factors. How dry is the land? What is the condition of your soil? How healthy are your crops? Can you harvest or graze your crops at the ideal time? Is Mother Nature providing additional help in the form of rainfall?

What Are My Water Rights in Colorado?

All water in the state of Colorado is owned by the state. Water rights only give you the legal right to use the water (as adjudicated). If you abandon your water rights (by not using them for a certain amount of years) the state can claim abandonment of that right and take it away.

If you have questions about how water rights pertain to your Western Colorado real estate, contact me at rob@coloradocountrybroker.com.