Colorado Water Rights Terms and Definitions

Abandonment of Water Rights: The loss of water rights because they have not been used by their owner. The water court can declare a water right or rights abandoned if it is shown that the water has not been put to a beneficial use for period of 10 years. However, the owners may rebut this presumption if they can show that there was no intent to abandon.


Absolute Decree: A water court decree recognizing that a water right has been perfected, or made real, by placing previously unappropriated water to a beneficial use.


Adjudication: A legal process in which an arbitrater or judge determines the rights and obligations of parties involved based on evidence, argumentation, and legal reasoning provided by the opposing parties.


Anti-speculation Doctrine: Statute in the Colorado water law that prohibits the speculative sale of water rights. It can be found in the Colorado Revised Statutes at 37-92-103(3)(a), 15 C.R.S. (1990). A municipality may be decreed conditional water rights based on projected future needs but its entitlement to such a decree is subject to the water court’s determination that the amount it may be conditionally appropriated is consistent with the municipality’s anticipated requirements based on substantiated projections of its future growth.


Appropriation: The act or plan to divert, store, or otherwise capture, possess, and control water.


Aquifer: A water-bearing geological formation.


Augmentation Plan: A water-court-approved plan designed to protect existing water rights by preventing shortages that calls for replacing water that is used. This type of plan is usually required in areas where there is a water shortage during all or part of the year.


Beneficial Use: Reasonably efficient practices to put an appropriation of water to use without waste. Some common types of beneficial use include household use, irrigation, municipal use, and water for wildlife, recreation, and mining.


Call: A request by a water-rights appropriator that holders of junior water rights curtail their use so that sufficient water is available to satisfy the needs of a senior water rights holder.


Change of Water Rights Decree: A change in the way a water right is used while retaining the senior priority of the original water right. The decree may allow different uses, different points of diversion, or different places of use. A change cannot exceed the beneficial historic consumptive use of the historic return flow pattern to prevent enlargement of the water right or injury to other water rights.


Colorado Ground Water Commission: The regulatory and permitting agency authorized to manage and control ground water use in designated ground water basins. To learn more about their role, visit the commission’s website at


Conditional Decree: A water court decree recognizing a priority date for a new proposed appropriation. The priority becomes fixed when the water is actually placed to beneficial use. The applicant for a conditional decree must show that there is unappropriated water available, and must have a plan to divert, store, or otherwise capture, possess, and control the water.


Conjunctive Use: The use of surface and ground water together to meet the growing needs of increased use.


Consumptive Use: Water use that permanently withdraws water from its source. This water is no longer available because it has evaporated, been transpired by plants, been incorporated into products or crops, consumed by people or livestock, or otherwise removed from the immediate water environment.


Designated Ground Water: Water that cannot be used to recharge or supplement continuously flowing surface streams. It is managed by the Colorado Ground Water Commission. There are currently eight designated basins in Colorado established by the Commission, which are in the eastern Colorado plains: Bijou, Camp Creek, Kiowa, Lost Creek, Northern High Plains, Southern High Plains, Upper Big Sandy, Upper Black Squirrel Creek, and the Upper Crow Creek.


Direct Flow Right: A right that takes its water directly from the surface stream or tributary ground water for application of beneficial use. It is expressed in cubic feet per second (cfs) of flow.


Discharge: The contribution of water from the aquifer to the surface stream or spring.


Diversion or Divert: Remove or control water from or within its natural course or location, by means of a water structure such as a ditch, pipeline, boat chute, whitewater course, reservoir, or well.


Doctrine of Prior Appropriation: The prior appropriation doctrine for water rights that "first-in-time" is "first-in-right." In times of water shortage, rights with junior priorities are curtailed to assure full water supply to more senior rights.


Domestic Preference: The Colorado constitution provides that, in times of shortage, domestic water use has preference over any other purpose, and that agricultural use has preference over manufacturing use.


Exchange Decree: A water court decree that allows an upstream diverter to take the water that would usually flow to a downstream diverter. The upstream diverter must provide the downstream diverter with a suitable replacement supply of water, in amount, timing, and quality from some other source.


Federal Reserved Right: A right to previously unappropriated water expressly created by federal law. Federal reserved rights may also be created by implication, meaning that even if such rights were not named explicitly, Congress implied that it was necessary to reserve water rights for use on federal lands such as tribal reservations, national parks, forests, and monuments.


Geothermal Resources: Subsurface geothermal fluids, which are regulated by the Colorado Geothermal Resources Act. Using them requires a permit from the State Engineer.


Ground Water Use Rights: Pursuant to the 1965 Ground Water Management Act, all new wells that divert tributary, nontributary, Denver Basin ground water, or geothermal resources must have a permit. The use allowed in the well permit for ground water depends on the source of the ground water and the type of beneficial use, which is generally divided into domestic, irrigation and livestock use.


Imported Water/Developed: Water transported from one stream system or aquifer to another that is naturally unconnected. Imported water may be used in augmentation or exchange plans or reused to extinction.


Injury: The action of another that causes or may cause the holders of decreed water rights to suffer loss of water in the time, place, and amount they are entitled to use that water.


Instream Flow: Minimum stream flows or lake levels needed to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Only the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) can hold instream flow water rights.


Instream Flow Water Right: A water right held by the state to protect or improve the water-dependent natural environment.


Nontributary Ground Water: Water outside a designated ground water basin, of which the pumping will not affect surface water levels within 100 years. An overlying landowner may use nontributary ground water at a rate of one percent per year, assuming a 100-year life of the aquifer.


Not Nontributary Ground Water and Nontributary Denver Basin Ground Water: Denver Basin ground water refers to deep ground water within the Dawson, Denver, Arapahoe, and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers that is outside the boundary of any designated ground water basin in existence on January 1, 1985, the withdrawal of which will, within 100 years, deplete the flow of a natural stream at an annual rate greater than one-tenth of one percent of the annual rate of withdrawal. See C.R.S. 37-90-103(10.7). There are two types of Denver Basin ground water: not nontributary and nontributary. Both are allocated to overlying landowners like nontributary water, at a rate of one percent per year, assuming a 100-year life of the aquifer.


Over-Appropriation: Occurs when a watershed or stream has more court-approved water rights decrees on that stream than the average water availability. Over-appropriation occurs from physical limitations influencing stream flows and tributary aquifers which limits when, if at all, a water right may be used depending on where a water right falls within the prior appropriation system.


Recharge: Also called inflow, occurs when surface water percolates through soil or geologic fractures into the aquifer.


Recreational In-channel Division Right: A water right held by a local governmental entity for structures that control the flow of water for rafting and kayaking.


Return Flow: Water that returns to streams or the ground after it has been applied to beneficial use. This excess water is not considered wasted or abandoned water. A return flow may be in the form of a surface flow, or as an inflow of tributary ground water.


Storage: The capability of an aquifer to hold water for a period of time.


Storage Right: A right to impound water in priority for later use.


Surface Water: water that is visibly collecting on the ground such as a stream, river, lake, wetland, or ocean. Surface water is replenished by precipitation and is lost through both evaporation and seeping below the surface into groundwater.


Tributary Ground Water: Water found below the Earth's surface that is hydrologically connected to rivers. Sometimes referred to as shallow ground water, tributary ground water can impact rivers by recharge or discharge. Water added to a shallow ground water system can increase the flow of the surface stream; conversely, well pumping can deplete the surface stream.


Water Court: A district court that hears matters related to water. Persons or entities file applications with one of these courts to obtain a judicially recognized water right, to change a water right, or to obtain an augmentation plan. If the application is approved, the water court will issue a decree or order.


Water Right: A property right that is either conditional or absolute and conveys the right to use a particular amount of water with a particular priority date as confirmed by the water court or by the Ground Water Commission if the water right is within a designated ground water basin.


Types of water rights:


Absolute – A water right that has been put to a beneficial use.

Conditional – A water right obtained through the water court where the water has not been placed to a beneficial use. It gives the holder of that right the time to complete a project as long as they diligently pursue completion of the project.

Junior – The prior appropriation doctrine for water rights that "first-in-time" is "first-in-right." In times of water shortage, rights with junior priorities are curtailed to assure full water supply to more senior rights.

Senior – Older or more senior water rights have higher priority in times of scarcity. See "Junior" above.

Storage – The impoundment of water for later application.


Water Value: The value of your water right or your right to use the water, which often depends on its priority of appropriation and the availability of water each year.


Waste: Taking more water from a stream than is needed for beneficial use when a diversion is made. It is not the amount allowed on the face of the water right decree but the amount of water put to beneficial use which sets the water right. If the decree is more water than what is beneficially used, the water will be considered waste.





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