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In arid West, water rights are like gold

After another winter of below average snowfall, the spring runoff has dropped to a trickle on the La Plata River with most of the irrigation ditches being shut down.

Our winter snows are the lifeblood for most of the agriculture that occurs in Southwest Colorado. Because most of our area receives less than 16 inches of moisture per year, our crops and livestock depend heavily on the winter snowpack to flourish through the hot summer months.

While most of the snow falls in the mountains, it is used in the lower elevations to irrigate crops and lawns and in our everyday activities. But who decides who will get to use this limited water and what benefits it will provide? It is said that in the arid West that water is more valuable than gold, and this may well be true as more people want this limited resource.

In Colorado, the rights to divert and use water are regulated by the state. It maintains who owns a water right and how much water owners may divert from a stream or well for their use. “Water rights” are an owned property right, much like real estate. They are held separately from other property rights and have a value that can be bought and sold. Once a water right is decreed by the state, it allows a person to divert a set volume of water from a stream or river and use it for the intended use: agriculture, industrial or domestic.

So who decides whether water will go to irrigate my hay, water your lawn, provide for rafting or be used for a power plant?

Colorado, in its early days, realized there was not enough water to go around, and so it was the first state to adopt a strict appropriation system for water usage. This doctrine is sometimes referred to as the “first in time, first in right” doctrine. Without going into great detail, the intent was that the first person (early homesteader) to file on and put water to a beneficial use has the first right to it. The second, third and later users are junior to his water right.

What this means is that when there is not enough water to go around (which is most of the time) the most junior water rights do not receive any water while the more senior water rights receive their full allocation. The majority of the water rights in Colorado were filed in the early years of our state’s history, with very little water left to be claimed in recent times.

So what does this mean to the average landowner? First and foremost, if you do not own any water rights, you have no rights to use any water running through your property in a ditch or stream. All water is owned by someone and will be used by them further downstream. If you use water that you do not own, you are stealing someone else’s property. While we would all like to be able to enjoy a flourishing yard and garden, the limited water supply and arid nature of our area limits what can be grown.

So take a little time and respect the water rights of your neighbors and just let their water flow on by.

Doug Ramsey has farmed in La Plata County for more than 35 years. He can be reached at 385-4375.

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