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Colorado Water Law   Tags: colorado, environmental, water  

Last Updated: Oct 26, 2012 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Many resources listed in these guides require University of Denver or University of Denver Sturm College of Law IP addresses for access. Other resources, such as Westlaw and Lexis, require individual user accounts and passwords.


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This guide's aim is to aid law students and practitioners in researching Colorado Water Law research materials, such as statutes, compacts, history, and legislation.  The subjects/keywords and call numbers are hyperlinked to the library’s catalog. Please remember that this guide is not an exhaustive list of materials or resources.

As the United States has no national water rights system, water rights and water allocation is the province of individual states.


Colorado water law is based largely on an appropriations doctrine sometimes referred to as the “first in time, first in right” maxim. This doctrine, outlined in C.R.S. 37-90-102, is based on the concept of right to use of water and such right being acquired through appropriation.  An appropriation is “the act of diverting water from its source and applying it to a beneficial use”. Simply, no one may “own” the water in a river or stream, but all individuals and municipalities have the right to beneficially utilize groundwater tributary, surface water tributary or reservoir seepage based on priority of appropriation. The first person to use the water has the priority water right (“priority” as defined by C.R.S. 37-92-103(10), is “the seniority by date”).  After which, that individual, corporation, or municipality owns that right against all future use.  According to Article XVI, Section 6 of the Colorado Constitution, the right to appropriate previously unappropriated water for beneficial use “shall never be denied”.


Appropriations are confirmed and the priority of a water right is determined by proceedings in the Colorado Water Court. Priority in applications to the Water Court are ordered by date.  Those who have applied in prior years have priority over those who have applied in calendar years subsequent to the previous applications. There is an exception to this rule for federally reserved lands for which water was impliedly reserved to meet the land reservation's primary purposes.  Federal reserved water rights are different from state appropriated water rights. A party may also apply to the Water Court for a conditional water right. 


As there is often overlap with Environmental Law and Property you may want to review our guides on these topics as well.

Free Online Resources

  • Bureau of Land Management
    This website reviews the water laws of eleven western states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming). Special attention is paid to the states’ water rights systems, the application processes, groundwater regulations, the general adjudication processes, and the states’ instream flow programs.
  • Bureau of Reclamation: Lower Colorado
    Links to full text of interstate compacts.
  • Colorado Bar Association Water Law Section
    The Water Law Section of the Colorado Bar Association is a group of over three hundred lawyers committed to enhancing the practice of water law and the administration of water rights in the State of Colorado. The Section provides a forum for the education and communication among water law practitioners and their staff, judges, members of he water law community, elected officials, the state bar association, and members of the public.
  • Colorado Division of Water Resources - Office of the State Engineer
    The Colorado Division of Water Resources (Office of the State Engineer) is an agency within the Department of Natural Resources providing administration of Colorado's water resources to meet the demands of today, and to provide for the needs of tomorrow. We are committed to meeting the ever increasing challenges of origin issues, reserved rights, wetlands, endangered species recovery and interstate water issues on an already limited water supply.
  • Colorado Foundation for Water Education
    The mission of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education is to promote better understanding of Colorado's water resources and issues by providing balanced and accurate information and education.
  • Colorado's Decision Support Systems (CDSS)
    Colorado's Decision Support Systems (CDSS) is a water management system being developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The goal of this system is to assist in making informed decisions regarding historic and future use of water.
  • Western Water Law's Measurements and Conversions Fact Sheet
    Equivalency tables, miner's inches conversions and other helpful information.

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