Guest column: Our mutual vested interest in water use

Elizabeth Chandler
Guest Opinion

Our region depends heavily on water to support our local economy. At least 20 of the 22 beneficial uses of water listed in the Citizens Guide to Colorado Water Law are utilized along the Middle Colorado. Agriculture relies on water to help feed our nation. Recreation, tourism and wildlife all rely on water.

We all have a vested interest in protecting this vital natural resource and using it well. So how is it decided who gets to use the water and how much they are allowed to use?

Water in Colorado is governed by the Colorado Doctrine, also known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. Two of the key components of this doctrine are that water is a public resource owned by the people of Colorado. Owning a water right gives you the right to use the water, but it is not a right of ownership of the water. This water right is considered a property right and it can be leased, sold or transferred, and has a monetary value.

The second key component of the Colorado Doctrine is that all water use must be for a beneficial purpose.

According to the “Citizens Guide to Colorado Water Law,” Colorado recognizes over 22 different beneficial use rights. All of these different uses have equal importance under the law. For instance, an irrigation right has the same standing in the law as the instream flow right or a recreational right to use the water. What gives one use a higher priority (senior right) over another (junior right) is the date the use was granted by a water court.

The first irrigation ditch in our area was established in 1881. The minimum instream flow in the Roaring Fork River was established in 1975. Therefore, the 1881 ditch has a senior right of use over the 1975 instream flow right. It is this principle of “first in time, first in right” that regulates who has the right to use water in Colorado. There is a big exception to this rule: In times of shortage, domestic use has precedence over agricultural use, and agricultural use has precedence over manufacturing.

An agricultural water right is a very specific right of use. It establishes where a farm or ranch’s point of diversion is, the amount of water you are allowed to divert out of the main stream and where you are allowed to use the water. It also requires that all diverted water is put to beneficial use.

The 1969 Water Right Determination and Administration Act defines agricultural beneficial use of water as “the amount required to move water to where it will be used, plus the amount required by the actual use.” In easier language, the irrigator must continually move the water to areas of the field that need water (it cannot be left in one place) and cannot divert more water than is needed by the field being watered.

Beneficial use is determined by a Water Court and administered by a Water Commissioner. There are several commissioners in our area and each one is responsible for a specific district.

The commissioners monitor each ditch for the amount of water being diverted and also that all water is being put to beneficial use.

They are also responsible to make sure that the senior rights are getting their water before junior rights are fulfilled. This is administered by the “first in time …” rule, not by the type of use.

All beneficial uses are considered equal under Colorado Law.

The guiding principles for water rights and use in Colorado are the “first in time, first in right” and the beneficial use requirement. This establishes the seniority system and allows all sectors to formulate business plans based on the anticipated amount of water that will be available.

Beneficial Use is the most important of the rules we are discussing. It holds that you cannot use the water unless you are putting it to beneficial use.

Together these two rules work to ensure that water in Colorado is available for use by the maximum number of people and for the greatest number of beneficial uses.

Elizabeth Chandler is program coordinator for the Garfield-Pitkin County Consumptive Use Water Plan. The Mt. Sopris, Bookcliff, and South Side Conservation Districts are in the process of gathering information about agricultural water use on the middle Colorado River as it extends from the mouth of the Glenwood Canyon to the mouth of the DeBeque Canyon. This information will be used to help ensure that local farmers and ranchers will be able to continue producing food and fiber in the healthy and sustainable landscape we all enjoy. For more information about the Conservation Districts call: 970-404-3439.

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