Water in the West is inherently complicated. A complex web of laws, compacts, and a little thing called “prior appropriation” dictates how and when people and entities are allowed to use water in the West, such as cities and towns, farms and ranches, and industry. This ability is what we call “owning a water right,” and explains much of how the West has been settled over the last century, and how many of the economic forces that affect our daily lives are driven by these water rights. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.
Prior appropriation is the backbone of our water law system. Perhaps you’ve heard of “first in time, first in right,” – this phrase refers to the water law system. Prior appropriation allows individuals or entities who first apply water for a beneficial use to be entitled to that appropriation into the future (and has priority over subsequent users). Holding a water right doesn’t actually imply ownership over the water (water in Colorado is “owned” by the people) but is instead the right to use the people’s water for a beneficial use like agriculture, municipal water, and now more recently, in benefit of the environment as in-stream flows.
Even if the term “water rights” leaves you scratching your head, and you call a western state your home, you still are impacted by them. There’s a fairly high chance that you use water connected to a water right, (unless you have your own well or diversion). Water running through pipes in cities and towns across the West are likely municipal water obtained through a water right held by city or town. Your community has to have a water right themselves to divert and distribute the water that ends up in your home. Agriculture, industry, and even our rivers and streams all depend on the legal structure managing our water.
Join us in this month’s episode of We Are Rivers as we navigate through the complicated nature of water law in the West, including prior appropriation, instream flow rights, and the history of water law.