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Student Project: Riparian Rights: Colorado

This is a research guide which further explains riparian rights and provides examples for each kind of water right in three different states.


In 1876, Colorado became the first state to officially adopt the prior appropriation doctrine in its Constitution.  The doctrine is often described as “first in time, first in right.”  Seniority is valuable:  the needs of a senior water right holder are always met prior to those of a junior water right holder. Within Colorado, water rights are administered in priority by the State Engineer’s Office.  There are division offices, as well as water courts, in each of the seven major river basins.  The local work of administering water rights falls to the water commissioners. Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. 

Appropriations are confirmed and the priority of a water right is determined by proceedings in the Colorado Water Court.


Research Guides - Colorado Water Law

Colorado Water Supply

How to Obtain a Colorado Water Right (Prior Appropriation)

  • The user must first show an intent to divert water, put the water to beneficial use, and demonstrate the intent to divert in an open, physical manner. The physical act must be sufficient to put other parties on notice. 
  • The user must then file a water right application with the water court in the river basin in which the diversion or proposed diversion exists to verify their place in line within the priority system. Forms for water rights applications can be obtained from Bradford Publishing, located in Denver, from the specific water court, or from the Water Court website.
  • The application is then published in a monthly resume and local newspapers. Each court varies in the publication procedures and, in many instances, you will have to write your own legal notice and will be billed for any and all publication costs. The water court clerk can provide information as to publication procedures. 
  • Parties who may have concerns regarding your application have two months to oppose the application and file a statement of opposition with the water court. 
  • The Division Engineer of the water division in which the court application was filed will review the application. The Division Engineer will have staff perform a field investigation to verify the claims made on the application. Upon completion of the investigation, the Division Engineer will submit a written consultation to the water court stating his or her recommendations on the application.
  • Assuming there is no opposition to your application, the matter usually goes before the water referee. The water referee is an employee of the court who rules on most of the cases prior to final review by a water judge. After the referee has reviewed your application, the referee will issue a ruling.
  • If any party disagrees with the decision, they may file a protest to the referee's ruling. If no protest is filed, the matter goes to the judge who signs the ruling, making it a decree of the court. If the matter is protested, the case may go before the water judge for trial unless the parties can reach agreement on any contested issues. 

State of Colorado Department of Natural Resources Division of Water Resources, Guide to Colorado Well Permits, Water Rights, and Water Administration 15-16 (2012).

Legislative History