Prior Appropriation System Test Projects

Colorado water rights owners are testing the state's prior appropriation or "use it or lose it" rule that penalizes those who divert less than their full allotment from rivers, thereby opening a potential path to cut water use as shortages continue throughout the American West. For 139 years, state enforcers have said farmers, cities and ranchers who don't use all the water they are entitled to could have their rights curtailed. Critics have said that discourages conservation. A first deal in the works, made possible by a 2013 law, lets a ranch owner near Granby leave water in Willow Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, without facing penalties. A second deal would leave more water in the Roaring Fork River, another Colorado River tributary, in Aspen. Colorado Farm Bureau (CFB) leaders said they're watching to make sure water left in rivers by those who don't exercise their senior rights stays available to next-in-priority irrigators. "We're definitely taking a wait-and-see approach," CFB president Don Shawcroft said.

"We had a certain understanding when the law was passed but it's certainly up to the interpretation of the court and lawyers." The Colorado law says not using water won't diminish or cancel a water right if the owner is enrolled in a conservation program with local approval.  Water saved initially will be small, flows of a few cubic feet per second into stream channels. But the emerging alternative to use it or lose it, developed by the Colorado Water Trust, marks a milestone in modernizing the state's first-come, first-serve system for allocating water. "We can look at the local water rights and determine if leaving water in a particular section of a river would create environmental benefits," said Amy Beatie, director of the trust, devoted to saving rivers. "The benefits could be significant," Beatie said.