General Water Information
Irrigation Water and Your Right to Use It
A major concern for small-acreage landowners is irrigation water. Many of the small parcels along the Front Range are sold with few or no irrigation water rights. If water is sold with the land it should be listed on the deed to the property. The purchaser should understand how much water is needed to irrigate the land and when it will be available. The amount and type of irrigation water will determine the type of water, amount available, and the company's delivery policy.
Even if there is a ditch running full of water on or near your property, you may not have the right to use it on your land. This has caused many misunderstandings in the past and as more farms and ranches are subdivided, it will continue to create controversy.
Colorado law states that the water of every natural stream, including ground water, belongs to the public but can be used by the citizens of the state for beneficial purposes. The right to use the water can only be obtained by applying for a decree from the Water Court. This decree, or water right, allows the holder to divert water from a stream or river system.
There are three types of water decrees: surface water from springs and streams, reservoir and pond surface rights, and underground rights for wells. A decree establishes the source of the water, amount that can be diverted, priority of use, and the water use and location of that use. All water rights are given priorities, with the first decree granted given the first right of use and all subsequent decrees following in their respective order. When stream flows are high, there usually is enough water for all. But as stream flow drops; the junior rights are curtailed to provide water for the senior rights.
A water right gives you the use of the amount of water in the decree. Some water rights are called early water or river water and are natural flows from the rivers and streams during high runoff periods. These rights expire when the stream flows decrease. You are not entitled to any more water from these rights for the rest of the year. In some dry years runoff may be so low that there is no early water.
Most water rights are from reservoir storage. The amount of reservoir water delivered per right is dependent upon the amount of water available in storage and is determined each year by the board of directors of the irrigation company. Each share of water is assessed an annual fee for delivery costs and ditch maintenance. When the amount of water you are entitled to has been depleted, you will receive no more water unless you purchase or rent additional rights.
As development has moved into agricultural areas, problems have developed concerning irrigation water. Some landowners are at odds with ditch companies over the maintenance of ditches running through their property. The ditch company has the right to maintain the ditch and the ditch bank on each side. This maintenance includes clearing trees in the right of way and cleaning the ditch with heavy equipment. There are instances where landowners plant lawns and ornamental trees or shrubs on the ditch bank. Conflicts arise when these are destroyed by ditch maintenance crews. Landowners may not realize that trees and shrubs use water from the ditch and roots create weak spots in the ditch bank. Other common abuses include unauthorized pumps in the ditch for lawn water and lawn, garden and household wastes thrown in the ditch.
Usually you must own ditch stock to run water. The ditch stock does not give you the right to water; it only allows you to run water through the ditch to your property. Water rights are separate from most ditch stock. The ditch company maintains the major ditches and laterals; however, the landowner is responsible for maintaining the delivery ditches on their property. Adequate headgates and delivery structures are required to allow water flow to be measured and controlled, and must be maintained.
Even if you own rights to water, you must notify the ditch company to release your share of water. You can only use your water when it is in the ditch. Owners must budget their water use to ensure they have enough irrigation water to last the season.
Wells and Storage Reservoirs
A water right and well permit must be issued for any well used to irrigate more than one acre and producing more than 15 gallon per minute, or used for commercial, industrial or municipal purposes. Wells for domestic use, such as livestock water and irrigation of less than one acre of land, require a permit but are exempt by statute from obtaining a water right.
If you own water rights, ponds and reservoirs can be built on your property to store water. Erosion control dams and livestock tanks can be built on drainages that are dry 80% of the year and cannot be decreed by the water court. Reservoirs can be built on live streams if a notice of intent to build is filed with, and approved by the State Engineer's office before construction begins. A dam that is less than ten feet high from the bottom of the natural channel to the bottom of the emergency spillway, contains less than 100 acre feet of storage, or has a surface area of less than 20 acres is deemed a non- jurisdictional dam and requires only a Notice of Intent to Construct filed with the State Engineer's office. To build a larger reservoir, one must present specifications and plans prepared by a registered professional engineer to the State Engineer for approval.
Common Water Terms and Definitions
- amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot; contains about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to supply an urban family of four for a year.
- a party's water right, determined by one of Colorado's five water courts.
- any removal of water from its natural flow.
- Doctrine of Prior Appropriations:
- the historic basis for Colorado water law; this doctrine states that the first party to put water to beneficial use has the greatest right to that water.
- ditch that carries irrigation water from a primary supply canal to an individual farm.
Northern Water prepared this document. For more detailed information, contact their office in Berthoud, Colorado at 1-800-369-7246.