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.