Conservation Corner

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Notes on Colorado Water Law

Water is the lifeblood of our White River Community and is especially necessary in agriculture production. Do you know the basis for Colorado water law and why you hear the reference “first in time, first in right”?

“The Colorado Doctrine is a set of laws regarding water use and land ownership, adopted by the people of Colorado starting in the 1860’s. It defines four essential principles of Colorado water law:

1. All surface and groundwater in Colorado is a public resource for beneficial use by public agencies and private persons; 

2. A water right is a right to use a portion of the public’s water resource; 

3. Water rights owners may build facilities on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use; and, 

4. Water rights owners may use the streams and aquifers for the transportation and storage of water.”1  

The Prior Appropriation System is the legal framework that regulates the use of surface water or tributary groundwater connected to the river basin.  The Prior Appropriation System is mandated by the Colorado Constitution and is often referred to as “first in time, first in right.”

“In light of water’s scarcity and value in this arid region, Colorado water law guarantees security, assures reliability and creates flexibility in the development and protection of water resources.”2 

Colorado water rights are complicated but a basic understanding of the history and laws surrounding them is critical to our rural communities. Scan the Zap code below or visit to explore the basics of water law in the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law (fourth edition).

Water Law in a Nutshell, Aaron R. Clay     2 Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law (fourth edition)