Touching the Surface: A Brief Timeline of Colorado Water Rights History

 

It has been said that water is Colorado’s most precious resource.

 

In fact, it’s probably the most important resource of the entire American West. Even Hollywood has picked up on that idea. Many old Westerns, amid their plots of gunfights over land and riches and women, featured stories of gunfights over water rights.

 

Colorado water showed its economic importance long before Colorado was declared a state, as it was a key factor in gold mining. Colorado is unique in that it was the first state to distribute water by public officials. The idea and value of sharing water in Colorado was practiced long before it’s statehood in 1876. The timeline barely touches the surface of water rights history in Colorado.

 

  • 1876 – Colorado Declares Statehood

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  • 1876 – Article 16 of the Colorado constitution creates “prior appropriation doctrine” which still defines the guidelines for water rights rulings today.

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  • 1879 – Colorado is divided into ten water districts, nine of the ten are located in the South Platte Valley.

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  • 1881 – Colorado created the Office of the State Engineer to measure the water in each stream.

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  • 1887 – Colorado creates a Superintendent of irrigation (Division Engineer) to supervise the Water Commissioners in each division.

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  • 1902 – Federal agency: US Bureau of Reclamation is created (USBR) to plan, construct, and implement water storage and diversion for the western United States. Many of the systems managed by the USBR include those along the Colorado River

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  • 1922 - Colorado River Compact establishes a treaty amongst the 7 states that the Colorado River passes through, dealing with water appropriation among those states.

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  • 1928 – Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 limits California to 4.4 million acre-feet annually. The BCPA also allowed the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada to enter a compact to divide the 7.5 million acre-feet of water apportioned annually to them; Arizona fought the compact until a Supreme Court Ruling in 1968.

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  • 1940 – U.S. government funded Vallecito Lake is completed.

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  • 1944 – Treaty signed with Mexico allocating 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River System to be given each year to Mexico.

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  • 1948 –Upper Basin States (Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado) agree to a percentage appropriation for the Colorado River. Colorado owns 51.75% of the Colorado River System (approximately 3.1 million acre feet of water per year.

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  • 1957 – Colorado passes the Colorado Ground Water Law of 1957, requiring a permit from the State Engineer prior to drilling a new well. Additional provisions were added concerning the registration of existing wells.

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  • 1965 – Colorado passes statutes directing the State Engineer to administer laws that would also include underground waters, tributaries, and surface waters in accordance with the Prior Appropriations Doctrine.

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  • 1968 – Congress authorizes the Animas-La Plata Project to provide water to the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Indian Ute Tribes of Colorado as a settlement to a portion of their water rights claims in Colorado and New Mexico. 34,000 acre feet of water annually from the Animas-La Plata project would supply the municipal and industrial water for the towns in SanJuan County in New Mexico.

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  • 1969 – Water Rights Determination and Administration Act of 1969 is passed. The State Engineers Office is officially renamed to “the Division of Water Resources” and was now required to administer both ground and surface water rights together.

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  • 1980 – Pine Lake Irrigation Districts pays off debt to U.S. government and now operates Vallecito Lake.

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  • Mid 1980s – Legislation is passed dealing with the tributary and non-tributary ground water and permit requirements used by the Division of Water Resources when managing water resources.

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  • 1992 – The State Engineer establishes rules and regulations regarding exchanges, water supply plans, and water quality for well construction.

 

This history of Colorado water rights runs as deeply as the many rivers, tributaries, and other water sources that originate from it. As Colorado continues to grow and change, so to will the many milestones that shape the history of Colorado Water Rights.

 

Contributing sources include: waterinfo.org, water.state.co.us/org, and frank.mtsu.edu/~berc/working/Penn-Zietz-04.pdf

 

 

 

 

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