As with the other arid states of the Rocky Mountain Region, Colorado's system for recognizing and protecting water rights is closely tied to the history of settlement and development of the West and is based on the "prior appropriation" doctrine. Water rights belong to those who put water to beneficial use, with priority during times of shortage over later water users. The current trends of unprecedented population growth and urbanization of previously undeveloped or agricultural land in Colorado will continue, for the foreseeable future, to foster fierce competition for the state's scarce water resources and will pose ever more complex problems under the state's traditional approach to water rights ownership and water allocation. Climate change may exacerbate current conditions.
Colorado's water rights system is administered on a day-to-day basis by the State Engineer's Office in the Division of Water Resources. Among other responsibilities, the State Engineer's Office reviews and approves applications for permits for the operation of water wells.
To be perfected as a legal right, a Colorado water right must be approved in a decree issued by one of the state's special Water Courts. Appeals from the decision of the Water Court may be taken directly to the Colorado Supreme Court as a matter of right. Summaries and the full text of recent decisions of the Colorado Supreme Courtin water rights cases are posted on this site. These are updated regularly.
Colorado's statutes also include detailed provisions concerning the use of the state's waters and administration of the water rights system. During virtually every session, Colorado's General Assembly is asked to consider numerous new bills relating to water rights issues.
Additional information and insight concerning evolving Colorado water rights issues is included in the Related Links area of this page, while forms published by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the Water Court are available in printable form at The State Engineer's Officeand Colorado Water Districts: Water Courts respectively.