FAQ – Ag Water Conservation Policy


Q: When were the first water laws related to irrigation developed?
A: It is believed that the Sumerian culture was the first to take an interest in managing water resources, maybe even as early as 5000 to 7000 B.C. Taxes were collected from irrigators, and extensive laws were adopted to properly operate and maintain irrigation systems. The Assyrians, located in modern day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria created extensive irrigation laws around 2400 B.C. Irrigators who were unwilling to cooperate with the laws for maintaining system quality and maintenance and equitable use by all were either beheaded or stoned to death.
Q: What is a beneficial use of water under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine?
A: Beneficial uses are usually established by state law. Examples of beneficial uses include agriculture, domestic, fish and wildlife, industrial, irrigation, mining, municipal, power generation, and recreation. States may establish other specific uses which are considered beneficial.
Q: What is the difference between exempt and non-exempt wells?
A: Exempt wells are those wells that are exempt from water rights administration under the priority system and non-exempt wells are those that are governed by the priority system. Examples of exempt wells include household use only, domestic and livestock wells, pre-1972 unregistered wells, commercial exempt wells, monitoring and observation wells, and replacement wells (Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, 2004).
Q: What are the limits of abandonment for my water rights?
A: Prior appropriation water rights are presumed to have been abandoned if they are not exercised during a statutorily determined period of time. Rights can also be lost through forfeiture or through adverse possession. In Colorado, each Division Engineer compiles a list of water rights that have not been used in the previous ten years and are presumed to be abandoned. The owner has three chances to recover their water right, either through an administrative procedure with the State Engineer, through a formal court proceeding in the water court, or through a right to re-open an abandonment decree. However, once a water right has been declared abandoned, it may not be revived.
Q: What are the benefits and challenges of water markets?
A: Water markets can be beneficial because they allow water right holders, farmers, producers, and irrigation and conservancy districts to market the use of surface and groundwater. On the other hand, in the western states where water courts are the deciding entity, court costs, engineering assessments, and legal fees may create significant transaction costs that limit the utility of these markets (Resources for the Future).
Q: How is water availability determined for agricultural use?
A: Ag water availability is determined by both physical and legal constraints. Physical constraints refer to the water supply available from natural stream flows and aquifers. Legal constraints refer to the amount of water already assigned for use by senior water rights and to fulfill interstate water compacts (Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law, CFWE 2004; Bureau of Land Management – Western States Water Laws).
Q: When is a stream considered over-appropriated?
A: If the water court has appropriated more water decrees for a basin or stream segment than available water, it is considered over-appropriated.
Q: What is an ag-urban water transfer?
A: Ag-urban water transfers are simply the permanent sale or temporary lease of agricultural water to municipal suppliers. These transfers are common in the West but are constrained by a number of physical, institutional and legal mechanisms. Not all agricultural water can be moved from the land it irrigates due to decree or authorizing legislation.
Q: What is Nontributary ground water?
A: Nontributary water is isolated ground water that if removed from the aquifer, will have minimal to no impact on surface water. In Colorado it is defined as water that when pumped will not affect the flow of any natural stream within 100 years, by 1/10 of a percent of the annual pumping
(House Bill 1303).
Q: What are some types of ag-urban water transfers?
A: Municipal purchase and dryup of agricultural land, Municipal purchase and lease back to agriculture, Rotational fallowing arrangements, Interruptible supply agreements, and Water Banks.
Q: What is Trans-mountain diversion?
A: A Transmountain or Transbasin diversion is where water is removed from one river basin and transported via canal, aqueduct or tunnel to another river basin.
Q: What are Federal reserved water rights?
A: Federal reserved water rights are rights existing on lands owned by the federal government (Native American reservations, military reservations, national parks and forests, and national monuments) where water is reserved for future use to fulfill the purpose of that reservation. Developed in 1908 by the US Supreme court in Winters v the US Government, a federal reserved water right is non-transferable and immune from the majority of state water laws. The federal reserved water right is not subject to diversion and beneficial use requirements, and cannot be lost by non-use, however is limited by the “primary purpose” and “minimal needs” requirements. The federal government is required to submit all reserved water rights claims to the specific state’s adjudication process. Examples of federal reserved water rights include public water holes and springs, mineral hot springs, stock driveways, public oil shale withdrawals, wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, and wilderness and conservation areas (Bureau of Land Management – Western States Water Laws).