When making the decision to buy a ranch or horse property in Colorado, one thing to consider is water rights. While it’s important to hire someone who clearly knows the law around water, as a ranch owner, you should become familiar at least on the basics of water rights.
Colorado water law originated during the time of the California Gold Rush. Miners would divert water from streams while mining for gold. The first miner to use the water had the first right to it. The second miner to stake a claim, had the second right to it and so on. This same system was brought to Colorado during its Gold Rush in 1859.
Water rights are considered a private property right and can be sold or inherited. The value can vary according to supply and demand. A new water user can’t just go out to a stream and divert the water to their property. Water courts were created to deal with this complex planning process. Water courts also issue permits and engineering assessments to prove that there is water available for use. Essentially anything that has to do with water rights, must be approved by the water court. A water right is granted based on the location, the amount and the beneficial use.
However, water use is still based on seniority. First one to get the water right, gets first priority on its use. During a water shortage, a senior water right holder can put out a “call for water.” All junior water right holders must stop diverting water to their property until the senior water right holder has used their allotted amount.
Ditch companies and associations serve as a kind of water cooperative. They are specifically set up to acquire water rights, build storage and deliver water to its members. These associations own and maintain ditches from their head-gates and smaller associations manage the smaller ditch systems. Members of these associations are entitled to water during irrigation season. They are responsible for attending work days, annual work days and coordinating with neighbors to keep ditches free of debris.
If you do not hold a deeded water right then you cannot in any way have access to that water even if it is running through your property. The ditch owner must be given full access to that ditch.
When you purchase your Colorado ranch or horse property be sure you have a good understanding of the water rights that come with your property in order to fully enjoy your investment.