Water Law Summary

One Page Water Law Summary

Colorado Water Law

By: Sue Avre, Water Commissioner District 51


Colorado water law is, at best, very confusing so this is a basic overview for residential owners.  Colorado rules by “Priority of Appropriation” which means first in time - first in right.  The earliest or first appropriate date of a water right is the “Senior” and the water rights with later dates are called the “Juniors”.  When the stream is flowing high and there is enough water for all users, it is referred to as “free river”.  But when there isn’t enough water flowing in the stream, the Senior has the right to “call for water” which means some or all of the Juniors are not allowed to take water until the “call” is cancelled.  Also, the Colorado water right allows the owner to intercept water (surface and/or ground water), put it to beneficial use, and release the unused water back into the watershed. 

Again, this issue gets complicated when considering the different types of water rights, augmentation plans, wells, and the water right appropriation date.  Basically, prior to 1957 a land owner was allowed to drill a well without a permit.  Since there was no way to determine Priority of Appropriation, in 1969 Colorado gave all well owners until July 1, 1972 to apply for their water right to hold their place in time.  If a land owner has a well on their property that has been in existence and use prior to May 8, 1972 and is not adjudicated, they can contact the State Engineers Office and receive a late registration.

So how does this affect the water users of Grand County?  If the water user is connected to a water municipality, they need to follow their rules and regulations for water use.  But for those on a well, they need to follow Colorado’s rules and regulations.  There are 3 general types of ground water permits approved by the State Engineer, exempt, non-exempt, and geothermal wells.  Non-exempt wells are used for irrigation, commercial, industrial and municipals.  Exempt wells the majority of wells in Colorado.  A “Household Use Only” permit limits the use of water to ordinary household purposes inside one single dwelling – no outdoor use.  A “Domestic” permit generally allows household use in up to three single family dwellings, irrigation of not more than one acre of home lawn and garden and water for non-commercial domestic animals.

The Colorado River Basin and its tributaries are overappropriated so it is very important for everyone to understand their water rights and permit limits to help conserve water now and for the future.  The Colorado Division of Water Resources has a website with more detailed information, you can find it at: http://water.state.co.us/Home/Pages/default.aspx