Surface water rights are regulated in Douglas County under the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation can be summarized in the following phrase: “first in time/first in right.” This means that the first person to “beneficially” use water from a body of water becomes the senior water rights holder (the water is appropriated), and has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. The remaining water on that body of water can be used by subsequent users, the junior water rights holders, for their own beneficial purposes, provided they do not harm the rights of senior water users. Each water right has an appropriation date and a yearly quantity of water that may be used. In times of drought, senior water right holders can use their appropriated water provided the water source can supply it. This is regardless of whether or not there is enough water left for junior water holders; however, depending on the available water, junior water holders may receive a portion of their full allocation.
Acquiring a valid water right necessitates establishing intent to divert water, which is the act of diverting the water and applying it to a beneficial use. In addition, surface water rights are not connected to land ownership and can, with certain restrictions, be sold and acquired as surface property.
The term “beneficial use” is important because it historically establishes the foundation, measure, and limit of the water for that water right holder. The definition of beneficial use is commonly delineated for household, agricultural and industrial purposes. According to Colorado water law, beneficial use is broadly defined as a lawful appropriation that employs reasonably efficient practices to put that water to use without waste. In order to have enough water available to as many water rightholders as possible, avoiding water waste is the goal. The uses that are considered beneficial have evolved and increased in response to Colorado’s changing community and economic values. For example, an environmental and ecological purpose, such as maintaining the wildlife habitat that is dependent on a natural body of water, is now considered to be a beneficial use under Colorado water law.