Water Rights Basics


Water rights in the United States are nearly the equivalent to owning gold. We often take for granted how often we use water – it is truly one of the earth’s most precious resources. Think about it, you drink water, bathe in it, give it to your pets to drink, use it for cooking, cleaning, washing cars, watering plants, and so on and so forth. And that’s just some residential uses! None of these things would be possible if it weren’t for water rights.


In the United States, there are two main types of water rights: prior appropriation (typically found in the western states) and riparian water rights (typically found in the eastern states). Water rights are under state’s jurisdiction and vary from state to state. You will find that several states treat the appropriation of water rights, both ground and surface, differently. You should refer to your state’s water rights laws for more specific information.


In general, you usually establish a water right authorization from the state in which you plan on using the water. States where water isn’t always plentiful are where you will typically find the most complicated water rights.


Riparian water rights (derived from English common law) are allocated based upon the owners of the land at the water’s source. The rights, which only belong to the landowners whose property is next to the body of water, can’t be transferred or sold to others – with the exception of owners of land that is still within the watershed (drainage basin). Riparian water rights must also be used for “reasonable purposes.”


Prior appropriation water rights are typically associated with the western states where water can sometimes be scarce. Prior appropriation water rights were originally derived from the miners during the gold rush; they established the first in time, first in right tradition. To obtain a water right under prior appropriation, you must file a claim with the state’s water court. When filing, a beneficial use for residential, agricultural, or commercial purposes must be proven. When the right is obtained, it specifies the amount of water allotted, for what uses it can be used, and a date by which it must be used. Any unused water gets passed down to the next water right holder. Senior water right holders have priority over junior water right holders – which is why it is important to know the seniority and date on your water right.


As mentioned before, and cannot be stressed enough, water rights vary from state to state. Check with your state government, water lawyers, or water brokers for more information regarding the ins and outs of water rights in your state.


Water Colorado is a water rights brokerage based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Water Colorado specializes in helping residents buy, sell, and rent water rights in any of the seven major basins in Colorado. If you have any further questions about water rights in Colorado please contact us at 970-493-4227 today.