Water Rights – Water Rights Simplified


Water rights are quite the big deal these days… Most Easterners wonder why the Western United States spends so much time obsessing about water rights. The fact is that water in the west can, at times, be scarce and is shared by so many users – thus the basis for the complexity of western water rights. Water rights in the west are governed by the Prior Appropriations Doctrine which states “first in time is first in right.” Institutions and individuals that filed for their water rights at an earlier date have senior water rights over others who filed at a later date.


So what is a water right? A water right is a right granted by the state that allows the holder a particular amount of water with a particular priority date in which the water granted must be used. Under the Prior Appropriations doctrine, water rights are treated as a property right, not as an individual right.


Depending on the state in which you reside, the allocation of ground water and surface water rights may be treated differently. The key is to research how your state handles ground water and surface water rights.


Anytime a significant quantity of water is diverted by an individual or agency, it is required that they have a water right to do so. If you or someone you know is diverting water without the proper right, it is a violation of State law which could incur a penalty or fine. If you live in the city, the agency owning the water right is usually the city in which you reside. Often times when water is extremely scarce, it is not uncommon for the city/municipality to place restrictions on the amount of water its citizens can use. Individual right owners typically reside in rural or suburban settings. Owning a water right is an easy way to significantly increase the monetary value of your property right. However, in order to own a water right, you must show that it is being used for a beneficial purpose. If you have a water right and do not use it, it will be lost – considered either abandoned or forfeited as a result of non-use.


Filing for a water right requires that the land owner provide extensive information regarding the use of the water. The individual or agency must prove that the water will be used for a beneficial purpose; they must specify how it will be used, what quantity is being requested and other specific information depending on the state and type of right you are trying to acquire.


Each state keeps extensive records on water right allocations. By doing so, state’s can monitor the yearly use of rights, predict the future use of water allocations, determine if any future allocations can be made, protect the rights of senior rights holders and monitor over-appropriations.


As a water right(s) owner, it is important to know the seniority and priority date of the right. If the water allocated is not used by the priority date, the next right holder (junior right) is allowed access to the water for their share.


Reserved water rights are typically granted to the Federal Government or Native American tribes/reservations. The main difference between water rights and reserved water rights is that the reserved right can never be terminated/forfeited/abandoned because of non-use.


Other resources available to those seeking more information regarding acquiring, maintaining or selling water rights include the State Division for Water Resources, District Water Courts, water attorneys, water rights brokerages, water engineers, and other state agencies.


Water Colorado is a water rights brokerage based in Fort Collins, Colorado. We specialize in helping Colorado residents buy, sell, and rent water rights in any of the seven major basins in Colorado. We also serve as a resource for those seeking guidance on how to deal with their water rights – we’ll do our best to answer your questions and send you in the right direction. If you have any further questions regarding water rights in Colorado, please contact us at 970.493.4227 today.


Sources for information found in this article include “Western Water Rights” by Mary Ellen Wolfe, produced by The Watercourse; and the Colorado Division of Water Resources.