Colorado Water by the League of Women Voters

Review by Ed Quillen

Water – May 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law
by Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.
Published in 2003
by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education

Colorado Water
by the League of Women Voters of Colorado

WHENEVER SOMEONE asks me for a good introduction to Colorado’s complex and confusing water laws, I recommend the 40-page booklet from our state’s League of Women Voters. It was first published in 1975, and has been revised every few years since then, most recently in 2001.

It provides a general overview: how much water Colorado gets in a normal year (about 100 million acre-feet), where it goes (85% of it evaporates or transpires through plants, and another 8% is owed to downstream states), and how the remainder is administered (courts and the state engineer’s office.)

Colorado Water is simply the best place to start, and it’s still the first place I look when I’ve got a water question. The only error I’ve ever encountered in it concerned the acreage under irrigation in the Upper Gunnison basin.

However, its scope is so general that it can’t provide much detail, and so Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law is a good place to turn when you need to know more about the specifics of water and our legal system.

There’s plenty to learn. At the heart of our system is the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, often expressed as “first in time, first in right.” It establishes “priority dates,” based on when someone first put water to a “beneficial use.”

That’s the basis, and author Gregory J. Hobbs (an experienced water attorney before he became an associate justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, and a poet) explains this clearly, as well as another important point: Ownership of a “water right” is not the same thing as owning water. A water right is only the right to use water in certain defined ways; the water itself always belongs to the people of Colorado.

Once those fundamental concepts are in place, they provide a framework for tackling the rest of our complex system: conditional and adjudicated rights, tributary and non-tributary ground water, return flows and “use to extinction,” conservancy and conservation districts, exchanges and augmentation, etc.

As you can see, it’s a complex topic (or more properly, several dozen complex topics), and Hobbs provides a concise but clear overview of our water law as it works in the courts and on the ground. The 34-page booklet also has a chronology that starts with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a glossary that extends from “Abandonment” to “Well,” and some suggestions for further reading.

THE ONLY PROBLEM I had with this book was that its design seemed too flashy — with too many attractive but distracting four-color pictures that disrupted my reading, as though it were for the coffee table instead of the reference shelf. But if that attracts more readers with the result that our water discussions become more rational, then it’s certainly a small price to pay.

Citizen’s Guide can stand on its own as a worthy introduction to our water law, and a promising start for the new water education foundation. However, if you’re just starting out on a Colorado water education, I suggest you read it after you’ve read Colorado Water.

Neither book seems to be available in regular bookstores, so you need to order them from their publishers. Colorado Water is $12 from the League of Women Voters of Colorado, 1410 Grant St., Office B-204, Denver CO 80203, 303-863-0437. Citizen’s Guide is $7 from Colorado Foundation for Water Education, P.O. Box 300158, Denver CO 80203, 303-377-4433,

— Ed Quillen