Navigating Water Rights in Western Colorado

By in Colorado Lifestyle

They say whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. While I can’t attest to any fatalities over water rights, it’s undeniable that they’ve sparked numerous disputes. Understanding water rights in Western Colorado is intricate and indispensable for effective property management. Here’s a concise breakdown to shed light on this complex topic.

Types of Water Rights in Colorado

Colorado boasts diverse water rights, encompassing well rights, spring rights, and irrigation water rights. These are further categorized into “decreed” and “reservoir” water rights. This discussion will delve into the specifics of decreed and reservoir water rights.

The Start of the System

The journey of irrigation water in Western Colorado commences with snow. Blanketing the Colorado mountains in winter, this snow transforms into a vital water source as it melts during spring, coursing down into the valleys.

Understanding Decreed Water Rights

In the late 1800s, as the Western land saw settlement, reservoirs, and ditches were constructed to manage water distribution. Colorado established water rights through the “first in use, first in right” principle. Simply put, the first person diverting water to their land gained priority rights, with subsequent users securing rights based on the order of establishment.

These rights, commonly known as decreed or adjudicated water rights, are often tied to a specific piece of land, documented in the property deed, and transferred from one owner to the next.

What is a Share of Decreed Water?

Water is typically measured in Cubic Feet Per Second (CFS). A water right for decreed water might be expressed in a fraction of a share, such as: “An undivided one-half interest in and to the 1.0 CFS decreed to the Carbon Ditch as Priority H-25.” This means that the user has a right to 0.5 CFS in the Carbon Ditch, and Priority H-25 is the level of priority to use that water.

To further explain, as the snow melts in early spring (usually April 1 of each year), water is placed in the ditch. This is referred to as free water or early water. It is typically available to all property owners along a ditch, regardless of whether they have water rights.

As the people with water rights begin to use their water, if there is not enough to go around, the free water ends, and only users with water rights can utilize the amount of water they have a right to. If water is plentiful and everyone can get their rightful share nothing is done, and everyone is happy. However, as the water begins to deplete, water begins to get shut off to certain users, starting with the lowest priority water right. This ensures that the highest priority water rights owner can access their rightful amount of water for the longest period.

All water must be measured before it can be diverted. The device for this measurement is called a Parshall Flume. A Parshall Flume is a fixed hydraulic structure set in a ditch and used to measure water flow. It allows an accurate reading of the water volume by accelerating the flow rate to match the depth of the flume. Water must be measured to ensure the appropriate amount of water is delivered.

Decreed water is allowed to flow until it gets shut off due to higher-priority users placing calls for their water. Depending on the seasonal water supply, this process could mean water flows for a month or two or the entire year.

Understanding Reservoir Water Rights

Reservoir water is stored in a reservoir or a series of reservoirs and owned by shareholders. These shareholders can buy and sell their water shares separately from any land purchase. As long as the water can be delivered from the reservoir to a particular piece of land, these shares can be delivered to multiple parcels.

What is a Share of Reservoir Water? 

A share of reservoir water means nothing outside of your water system. One share of water from one reservoir may be equal to 1,000 shares of water in another.

Each reservoir company has an established amount of water that equates to each share. For example, in Company A, 1 share of water may equate to 1 CFS Alternatively, in Company B, 1 share might equate to 5 CFS 

The amount of water for each share can vary drastically depending on the water stored in the reservoir. Every spring, the reservoir company’s board of directors meets with shareholders to establish the water available for each shareholder. 

Reservoir water is ordered for days, and the amount delivered is deducted from the total amount available. For instance, you may own 10 shares of water, which equates to 10 CFS of water. Say you order 0.5 CFS for 4 days. After 4 days, your water is shut off, and you have used 2 CFS of your 10 CFS allotment. You still have 8 CFS of water to be ordered throughout the season.

1 CFS = 1.983 acre-feet per day = 646,320 gallons = 2,447 cubic meters of water

Optimizing Reservoir Water Shares for Irrigation

To irrigate effectively, you must portion your water shares across many months of the growing season. How much water do you need for irrigation? That is dependent on several factors. How dry is the land? What is the condition of your soil? How healthy are your crops? Can you harvest or graze your crops at the ideal time? Is Mother Nature providing additional help in the form of rainfall?

Efficient irrigation involves strategic allocation of water shares across the growing season, contingent on factors like soil conditions, crop health, and the intervention of Mother Nature.

Understanding Water Rights Ownership in Colorado

In Colorado, all water belongs to the state. Water rights confer the legal right to use the water, subject to adjudication. Abandoning these rights through non-use for a specified period can lead to the state claiming abandonment.

For queries on how water rights impact your Western Colorado real estate transactions, contact me at rob@wesellthewest.com.

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