Chapter 3, Page 2 of 5

History of Water Development/Water Rights

The history of Colorado’s water development began in the late 1780s, and Colorado has the distinction of being the first state to publicly administer water development. The oldest, most senior, water right in Colorado dates from 1852 and is for Culebra Creek in Costilla County. The use and development of water in Colorado is governed by a system or doctrine of prior appropriation. This doctrine of “first in time, first in right” is common to the majority of western states. An appropriation is made when water is diverted from a stream or ground water and put to beneficial use. The first person to appropriate the water becomes the senior water-right holder after receiving a court decree verifying their priority status.

1911 artesian well in the San Luis Valley.

Although ground-water use in Colorado for public supply, domestic use, and industrial use dates back to before the turn of the century, its management and administration were not addressed until 1957. The Colorado Ground Water Law of 1957 required obtaining a permit from the State Engineer prior to construction of a new large capacity (>50 gallons per minute, gpm) well, and had provisions for the registration of existing wells. Small capacity wells remained exempt and essentially unregulated until 1971.


In 1965 and 1969, the Ground Water Management Act (Colorado Revised Statutes, C.R.S. 37-90-101 to 104) and the Water Rights Determination and Administration Act of 1969 (C.R.S. 37-92-101 to 602) were enacted. The Ground Water Management Act was enacted to address ground-water-based irrigation issues, involving declining water levels, arising from rapid development on the high plains of eastern Colorado. The 1965 Act created a permit system for ground-water development within designated ground-water basins, and established the Ground Water Commission. The Water Rights Determination and Administration Act of 1969 required that surface and tributary ground-water rights be administered together. This required two actions: (1) the adjudication of ground-water rights to protect their priority and (2) the filing of augmentation plans for tributary wells to mitigate material injury to senior water rights.

Chapter 3, Page 2 of 5