DISCLAMER: The information on this page is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be used as an alternative to seeking legal advice where necessary. Consult the State Engineer’s Office and/or your division’s Water Commissioner for any legal questions or advice related to water rights.

Colorado Doctrine

In the 1860s, Colorado adopted a set of laws regarding water use and land ownership known as the Colorado Doctrine. This doctrine established four essential principles of the state’s water law that helped distinguish it from Riparian Law, which is the water law framework commonly followed in wetter, humid portions of the U.S. where there is less concern for reduction of overall flows (Water Education Colorado [WEco], 2015; Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB], 2011; OpenEI, 2017):

  1. The state’s surface and groundwater is a public resource for beneficial use by public agencies, private persons and entities;
  2. A water right is a right to use a portion of the public’s water supply;
  3. Water rights owners may build facilities on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use;
  4. Water rights owners may use streams and aquifers for the transportation and storage of water.


Prior Appropriation System

The prior appropriation system, affirmed by Colorado’s Constitution and termed the “prior appropriation doctrine,” is Colorado’s legal framework which regulates surface water and tributary groundwater use (Colorado Division of Water Resources [DWR], n.d.; WEco, 2015). This system of allocation determines who uses how much water, the types of uses allowed, and when those waters can be used, with the main objectives of preventing water waste and providing a system of allocation around a scarce resource (CWCB, 2011; DWR, 2012). Provisions of the 1969 Water Right Determination and Administration Act, as well as the 1965 Ground Water Management Act, primarily govern the prior appropriation system (WEco, 2015; DWR, 2012; Colorado Geological Survey [CGS], 2003).

1969 Water Right Determination & Administration Act
(C.R.S. 37-92-101 to 602)

  • Required surface water & tributary groundwater be integrated into a unitary adjudication & administration system
  • Established seven water divisions based on the state’s major basins, established division engineers in charge of water administration, & created a water court for each division to adjudicate water rights & settle disputes
  • Established the authorization of augmentation plans to enable out-of-priority water use through replacement water
  • Created explicit procedures for filing and pursuing applications and objections to applications for water rights, conditional water rights, changes of water rights, and augmentation plans

1965 Ground Water Management Act
(C.R.S. 37-90-101 to 104)

  • Established criteria for setting aside areas of the state to be managed strictly for maximizing groundwater
  • Created a permit system for groundwater development within designated groundwater basins
  • Established the Ground Water Commission

Despite the addition of state statutes over the years to aid in the administration and management of Colorado’s ever-changing water landscape and users, four main guiding principles of the prior appropriation system remain (Jones & Cech, 2009):

  1. In order to establish a water right, an entity must divert the water and apply it to beneficial use; however, recent provisions allow recreational and environmental appropriation as beneficial uses that do not have to be withdrawn from streams. In relation to the Colorado Doctrine’s essential principles (number one and two, listed above), the established right is usufructory, meaning (1) no entity owns the stream or water in it, but they are able to develop a right to use the water for a beneficial purpose; and (2) the right was dependent upon its continued application to a beneficial use.
  2. Users with earlier adjudicated (court-decreed) rights (referred to as “senior rights”) have priority to divert in times of short supply before later-acquired rights (“junior rights”) can begin to use the water tied to their rights. This principle has provided for the system’s commonly referred to nickname, “first in time, first in right.” It should be noted, however, that the Colorado Constitution states that during times of shortage, domestic water use has preference over all other uses, and agricultural use has preference over manufacturing use during such times (WEco, 2015; Grantham, 2016). Additional exceptions to this priority order occurs when there is an approved replacement water supply plan in place allowing for out-of-priority diversions (i.e. augmentation plans, exchanges, and substitute supply plans) or because of a statutory exemption from administration (i.e. exempt and non-exempt wells).
  3. Water can be removed from a stream and used in locations distant from its diversion, including in another drainage basin.
  4. Once a right has been established, the right to use the associated water can be sold to third parties while allowing for the priority date to remain intact.

An appropriation is made when an individual, public agency or business physically takes water from a stream or underground aquifer and puts it to beneficial use (DWR, 2012). Before that water is appropriated, the individual or entity must submit an application for a water permit containing a plan (whether to divert, store, or otherwise capture, possess and control) that specifies the amount of water to be used, type of beneficial use, and the locations of diversion or storage (WEco, 2015). The applicant then uses the water for the approved purpose, and then, through the process of adjudication, obtains a Water Court-approved decree for their water right confirming the priority date, source of supply, point of diversion/storage, amount of water, type of use, place of use, and conditions to protect against material injury to other water rights (WEco, 2015; Water Information Program [WIP], n.d.). Most other western states with a prior appropriation system have water rights issued by a state water official or agency, making Colorado unique by having water rights issued by water courts.

Appendix B: Overview of Colorado Water Law in Colorado’s Water Supply Future, Statewide Water Supply Initiative by the CWCB (2011)
This appendix to the 2011 Statewide Water Supply Initiative provides a basic guide to major concepts of Colorado’s water law and administration system.

Chapter 2: Colorado’s Legal & Institutional Setting in Colorado’s Water Plan by the State of Colorado (2015)
Chapter 2 of Colorado’s Water Plan provides an overview of the regulatory framework that guides water administration and management in Colorado.

Colorado Water Access & Water Rights, Regulatory & Permitting Information Desktop Toolkit by Open EI
OpenEI is developed and maintained by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory with funding and support from the U.S. Department of Energy and a network of International Partners & Sponsors. While this website is geared towards energy development, it does provide a number of web pages discussing Colorado water rights and water access.

General Principles of Colorado Water Law by Jefferson V. Houpt, Esq. (2014)
This document contains a short synopsis of some of Colorado water law’s major, general principles.

Guide to Colorado Well Permits, Water Rights, & Water Administration by the Colorado Division of Water Resources (2012)
Created by the Colorado State Engineer’s Office/Division of Water Resources, this document is a helpful fact sheet which answers some of the most commonly asked questions pertaining to water permits, rights and administration within the state.

Synopsis of Colorado Water Law (7th ed.) by Joseph Grantham, Colorado Division of Water Resources (2016)
Originally published for use by water commissioners in the field, the book gained popularity with the public for its ease of use and assistance in understanding basic concepts of water law in Colorado.

Colorado Division of Water Resources [DWR]. (n.d.). Water Rights.

—–. (2012). Guide to Well Permits, Water Rights, and Water Administration. Denver, CO.

Colorado Geological Survey [CGS]. (2003). Chapter 3: Water Law. In Ground Water Atlas of Colorado (Colorado Geological Survey Special Publication 53). Prepared by R. Topper, K.L. Spray, W.H. Bellis, J.L. Hamilton, and P.E. Barkmann. Denver, CO: Colorado Geological Survey.

Colorado Supreme Court [CSC]. (2008). Non-Attorney’s Guidebook to Colorado Water Courts. Prepared by Water Court Committee.

Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB]. (2011). Appendix B: Overview of Colorado Water Law. In Colorado’s Water Supply Future, Statewide Water Supply Initiative, 2010. Denver, CO: Camp, Dresser & McKee (CDM).

Houpt, J.V., Esq. (2014). General Principles of Colorado Water Law. Glenwood Springs, CO.

Jones, P. A., & Cech, T. (2009). Colorado Water Law for Non-Lawyers. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

OpenEI. (2017). Colorado Water Access and Water Rights (19-CO-a).

State of Colorado. (2015). Chapter 2: Colorado’s Legal & Institutional Setting. In Colorado’s Water Plan. Denver, CO: Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Waskom, R., Rein, K., Wolfe, D., & Smith, M. (2016). How Diversion and Beneficial Use of Water Affect the Value and Measure of a Water Right: Is “Use It or Lose It” an Absolute? (Colorado Water Institute Special Report No. 25). Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University.

Water Education Colorado [WEco]. (2021). Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law (5th ed.). Denver, CO.

Water Information Program [WIP]. (n.d.). Colorado Water Rights.

Grantham, J. (2016). Synopsis of Colorado Water Law (7th ed.). Denver, CO: Colorado Division of Water Resources.