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Water Law

Colorado and other western states use the prior appropriation system to allocate rights to use water, which can be summarized as “first in time, first in right.” During times when there is insufficient water to satisfy all rights on a stream, the users who first put water to beneficial use have their entire right satisfied, while latecomers are ordered to stop taking water. As a result, more senior water rights that were first put to beneficial use have a more reliable supply of water across different stream conditions than junior water rights. 

The states that use prior appropriation vary in their implementation and specifics of the system. Colorado is unique among Western States for its long tradition of adjudicating water rights in court rather than through an administrative agency permitting process. Colorado’s first stream adjudications were completed before 1900. In 1969, Colorado created seven water courts that deal exclusively in water matters.  Each court’s jurisdiction is defined by river basin boundaries for the basin(s) where the court is located.

When any water user wishes to adjudicate a new water right or change a water right, she files an “application” in water court and notice is provided to all users in that basin and the public. Any other water user may appear in court to demand proof that they will not be injured by the action requested in the application. In addition, any person (even if they do not own water rights) may appear in court to hold the applicant to “strict proof” that they have complied with the laws affecting the application.

In other states, such as Utah, an executive branch agency has historically handled both administration and creation of water rights. While certain matters in these states go to court, a significant portion of water practice involves administrative law and interfacing with the agency. 

The subsections of this page describe specific areas of water law in additional detail and summarize our experience. If you would like to know about Curtis, Justus, & Zahedi, LLC’s experience in water law or our ability to help with specific issues you face, please contact one of our partners. We relish the challenges and opportunities presented by novel situations and invite you to contact us even on issues that are not listed on this website.