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Caring for Your Water

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  • Water Rights
  • Ditch Easements
  • Ponds/Reservoirs
  • Well Rights
  • Mineral Rights
  • Wetlands
  • Drought Water Conservation

Water Rights

Unlike the Eastern U.S. where water has ample supply, water in the more arid West is a finite and limited resource. Because of this, the state of Colorado allocates water to different users, based on their ability to put the water to “beneficial use”, according to the “Prior Appropriation Doctrine”, often known as “first-in-time, first-in-right.” This doctrine implies that the first users to apply for water rights hold ‘Senior’ water rights over more ‘Junior’ water rights that were applied for at a later date. Because farmers and ranchers were some of the first settlers in Colorado, the majority of Senior water rights have been adjudicated to agricultural uses, with municipal, domestic, and industrial uses often acquiring more Junior water rights. More recently, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and other government entities have also been acquiring instream flow rights for environmental and recreational uses.

A water right decree establishes the location of diversion points; the source of the water (stream system); the amount of water that can be diverted or stored; the type and place of use; and the priority. “Priority” relates to a water right’s adjudication date and determines the priority of water diversion for Senior and Junior water right holders. Most waterways in Colorado are considered “over-appropriated”, meaning that during drier times of the year there may not be enough water running through them to satisfy all the water right claims on them. If stream flows drop to a level in which not all water rights can be satisfied, Junior water rights will be curtailed to satisfy more Senior water rights.

Like many other Western States, the general principle for water rights in Colorado is that they are NOT connected to land ownership and can be sold or mortgaged like other forms of property. These rights can also be lost over time if the water has not been beneficially used for a certain number of years, hence the common phrase “Use It or Lose It.” If water rights are still available or if current rights are to be bought and sold, they can only be secured through the Division Water Court.

Water Ditches and Easements

When purchasing land with existing ditches, the owners of the water rights decreed to those ditches have the right and responsibility to use and maintain their ditches across your property. This is an “Implied Easement” that is tied to the ditch and may not show up on the deed of the property (see the Property Easements section). Water right owners are required to keep their ditches in good repair and to prevent unnecessary flooding and water wastage. They also have a duty to divert only the amount of water needed for the decreed use(s). A property owner whose land has an irrigation ditch running through it is NOT allowed to prohibit ditch owners and managers from accessing their ditch. Ditch owners are not allowed to run rampant on your property, however; they are restricted to the use of a “reasonable” distance on either side of the ditch to maintain its integrity and usability. Ditch owners may also install pipes within the ditch as deemed necessary for its operation. Landowners without rights to the ditch (but whose property the ditch flows through) do NOT have the authority to use, withdraw, impede, or alter the ditch in any way without the permission of all water right owners on that ditch. Last but not least, water right owners have a right to clean out and place spoilage on the sides of the ditch, and they are NOT required to remove that spoilage from within their ditch easement.

Ponds & Reservoirs

Livestock Water Tanks

If you want to install a livestock water impoundment, it must be located on a drainage that is dry 80% of the year. These types of structures are governed by the Livestock Water Tank Act and are not decreed or approved by the Water Court. Rather, they are approved by the Division Engineer’s Office.

Non-jurisdictional Water Impoundments 

These impoundments include “any dam to be constructed to the height of ten feet or less measured vertically from the elevation of the lowest point of the natural surface of the ground where that point occurs along the longitudinal centerline of the dam up to the crest of the emergency spillway; impounds less than 100 acre feet; and has a surface area at the high water line of less than 20 acres.”

Prior to constructing a non-jurisdictional dam, a Notice of Intent to Construct must be approved by the Division Engineer.

Jurisdictional Dams

Jurisdictional dams are “any dams constructed or to be constructed which exceed any of the limits described above for non-jurisdictional impoundments.” The construction of these dams requires plans and specifications prepared by an engineer and approved by the State Engineer.

The primary responsibility for maintaining a “safe dam” rests with the OWNER of the dam. State statute places liability for damages on the owner if the dam fails.

Water Well Rights

A permit is required for construction of a new well, replacement of an existing well, change or increase in the use of a well, or change in the source for the well (i.e. drilling deeper). Well permits are also required if groundwater is intercepted while constructing an off-channel pond. Application forms and assistance can be obtained from the Division Engineer’s Office. Well applications are approved for specific uses. Those uses may (or may not) include outside water use. If you are a new homeowner, be sure to check the approved uses of your well prior to installing outdoor water spigots, irrigation systems, or purchasing livestock. “Household ONLY Use” means you CANNOT do any form of outside watering without an approved augmentation plan!!! This includes washing your car in the driveway.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources is the department to contact with questions regarding water rights (see page 3 for their contact info). You can also check out for specific Water Commissioner contact info.

Mineral Rights

Like water rights, mineral rights are NOT definitively tied to the land. Both mineral rights and water rights can be separated from the land on which they are located. Accordingly, when you purchase new land, be sure to research if you are also acquiring the mineral rights on that land. You may be acquiring 100%, 50%, or 0% of the mineral rights. It is worth looking into because you do not want to be surprised later on when a stranger walks up to your door wanting to claim his or her mineral rights. Mineral rights refer to: a) sedentary minerals that do not move below the Earth's surface, and b) fluid minerals such as oil or natural gas.


Wetlands are defined as “those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.” Wetlands are the transitional areas between open water and dry land that are often found along bays, lakes, rivers and streams. Plants growing in wetlands are capable of living in saturated soil conditions for at least part of the growing season. Swamps and marshes are obvious wetlands, but other wetlands are more difficult to recognize because they are dry during part of the year or they “just don't look very wet.”

Why are wetlands important?

Wetlands provide food and habitat for an abundance of life. Along with open water, they are breeding, spawning, feeding, cover, and nursery areas for fish. They are also important nesting, migrating, and wintering areas for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Wetlands serve as buffer areas to protect shorelines and streambanks from erosion and storm surges. They also act as natural water storage sites in groundwater recharge areas and times of flooding. Finally, wetlands perform critical water quality functions, such as assimilating, recycling, filtering, and removing pollutants from water.

Why do wetlands need to be identified?

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is the only regulatory agency authorized to determine the presence or absence of jurisdictional waters of the US, including wetlands. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act also requires the USACE to authorize the discharging of dredged/fill material into waters and jurisdictional wetlands of the United States. Activities in wetlands for which permits may be required include: placement of fill material, land clearing involving relocation of soil, road construction, shoreline erosion control, mining, and utility line or pipeline construction. Please realize, this list is NOT meant to be exhaustive of all activities that may require a USACE permit.

What to Do

If you plan to perform work or deposit fill material in areas that have characteristic indicators of a wetland, you should FIRST seek assistance from the local Corps District Office. The local Corps District Office must make the final determination of whether a wetland is present and if the planned activities require a permit. See page 3 for the USACE Office contact info.

Some clues that you may have a wetland:
  • Standing or flowing water.
  • Waterlogged soil.
  • Watermarks on trees.
  • Drift lines or piles of debris oriented in the direction of water movement.
  • Debris lodged in trees.
  • Thin layers of sediment deposited on leaves or other objects in the form of soil “crusts.”
  • The area is flooded, occurs in a floodplain, or has low spots where water is present just below or above the soil surface for part of the growing season.
  • The area has plant communities that occur in areas known for having standing water for at least part of the growing season.
  • The area has peat, mucky soils, or is soft enough to compress under foot.


What is drought?

Drought is a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and/or people. It is a normal, recurrent feature of climate that occurs in virtually all climate zones, from very wet to very dry. Drought is a temporary aberration from normal climatic conditions, thus it can vary significantly from one region to another. Drought is different than aridity, which is a permanent feature of climate in regions where low precipitation is the norm, as in a desert.

Why care about drought?

With climate unpredictability becoming the new norm, an increase in drought periods is predicted by climatologists to be more frequent. If proper drought planning and mitigation are not implemented and exceptional drought occurs, adverse effects on public health and safety, economic activity, environmental resources, public services, and individual lifestyles are likely to occur.

Drought Preparedness Planning

In April 2019, a team of Grand County professionals, local water districts, towns, county government, and other organizations met to discuss the beginnings of what would come to be the Grand County Drought Management Plan. Over the course of eight facilitated meetings, representatives from the towns and water districts, stockgrowers, county government, fire protection districts, recreation districts, Trout Unlimited, private commercial ranches, homeowners associations (HOAs), and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments met to hash out the elements of Grand County’s most comprehensive and collaborative drought program.

The purpose of this plan is to prepare the water users in Grand County for times of water shortages. This plan is to be used as a guideline for the entities that adopt it to help them deal with varying drought conditions and educational possibilities. It is meant to be used as an educational tool and not a regulatory document.

To learn more about the Grand County Drought Preparedness Plan and each “Stage of Drought”, visit

Water Conservation

In residential areas, the greatest source of water consumption (after that of indoor water use) is your lawn. Nearly 50% of the water consumed for residential use is applied outdoors. Save water by:

  • Not using sprinklers when it is really windy.
  • Not watering when a heavy rain is forecasted.
  • Watering your lawn every third day.
  • Watering during the cool time of the day (6pm to 10am).
  • Determining the proper irrigation amount and duration needed by your vegetation.
  • Adjusting your automatic sprinkler settings to meet your lawn’s needs.
  • Installing drip or micro irrigation.
  • Practicing Xeriscaping.


Xeriscaping (pronounced “Zer-i-scaping”) is landscaping adapted to semi-arid and arid climates. Natural precipitation is limited in our area. Compared to the annual precipitation of 30” in New England and 70” in Mississippi, you can understand why in Colorado (with an average annual precipitation of 17”) we can’t grow the same Kentucky Bluegrass lawns seen in the East without excessive irrigation. When installed correctly, xeriscaping can save up to 30% on a home’s water bill.

Xeriscaping incorporates these basic principles:
  • Limit your turf area. Consider planting grasses known for their drought tolerance and ability to survive with minimal fertilizer. Avoid fine and tall fescue grasses.
  • Maintain taller grasses, and leave the clippings on the lawn to recycle their nutrients.
  • Choose native, drought-tolerant plant species. Ask your local nursery or Conservation District for suggestions (see page 3 for the Conservation District phone number).
  • Choose an efficient irrigation system. Turf areas do best when watered with sprinklers, but drip irrigation is sufficient for shrubs. Conduct a water audit on your irrigation system.
  • Use mulches liberally. Mulch helps maintain soil temperatures, retain water, and reduce weed growth.

For residents looking to convert their thirsty green lawns into drought-conscious xeriscaped landscapes, check out the links to Colorado State University Extension's Xeriscaping factsheets below.  

Water Facts

  • Approximately 400 billion gallons of water are used in the U.S. per day.
  • The average U.S. residence uses over 100,000 gallons per year (inside and outside use).
  • About 6,800 gallons of water are required to grow a day’s worth of food for a family of four.
  • 780 million people lack access to an improved water source.
  • A water-efficient dishwasher uses as little as four gallons per cycle, but handwashing uses 20 gallons of water.
  • If all of the world’s water were to fit in a gallon-sized jug, the fresh water available for our use would equal only one tablespoon.
  • In a 100-year period, a water molecule spends 98 years in the ocean, 20 months as ice, two weeks in lakes and rivers, and less than a week in the atmosphere.
  • If all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere fell at once and was evenly distributed, it would only cover the Earth with about an inch of water.
  • 300 tons of water are required to manufacture one ton of steel.
  • 1,799 gallons of water are required to produce one pound of beef.
  • 1,008 gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of wine.
  • 3,170 gallons of water are required to produce to one pound of chocolate.

Everyday Indoor & Outdoor Water Saving Tips: Routine Water Conservation Practices

Headwaters River Journey — A water and wildlife museum in Winter Park, CO:



References: 1, 8, 38, 39, 40, 63, 64, 74


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