Water Rights

Prior Appropriation System

Water rights in Colorado are unique when compared to other parts of the United States. The use of water is governed by what is known as the "Prior Appropriation System". This system of water allocation controls who uses how much water, the types of uses allowed, and when those waters can be used.

A simplified way to explain this system is often referred to as "first in time, first in right." An appropriation is made when an individual physically takes water from a stream (or underground aquifer) and places that water to some type of beneficial use. The first person to appropriate water and apply that water to use has the first right to use that water within a particular stream system. This person (after receiving a court decree verifying their priority status) then becomes the senior water right holder on the stream, and that water right must be satisfied before any other water rights can be fulfilled.

Important Links

Abandonment of Water Rights

Abandonment is the termination of an absolute water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner to discontinue permanently the use of all or part of the water available thereunder. Failure to apply a water right to beneficial use when water was available for a period of ten or more years results in a rebuttable presumption of abandonment. Once the rebuttable presumption is established through non-use, the burden shifts to the owner of the water right to prove that they did not intend to abandon the water right.

Every 10 years, the division engineer is required to present to the water court a list of water rights that the division engineer has found to be abandoned.  The process and timeline of the decennial abandonment process are guided by statutory requirements as follows: (for detailed timeline, see important links)


Division Engineer’s Abandonment Lists & Objection Form

The initial list of water rights determined to have been abandoned by the division engineer shall be prepared by July 1, 2020 with publication and notice mailed to the last known owner by July 31, 2020.

Division Engineer's 2020 Abandonment List (pdfs by division and sortable spreadsheet for all of Colorado)


Any person wishing to object to the inclusion of an absolute water right must have filed a statement of objection in writing with the division engineer by July 1, 2021.


Revised Abandonment List:

The revised abandonment list is submitted to the water court, after being amended, if appropriate, from the Division Engineer’s Abandonment List; filed with the water court by December 31, 2021.



Important Links


Guideline, Policy, Protocol, Written Instruction & Order