What rules would Colorado follow?

What rules would Colorado follow?

In 1861 when the Colorado Territory was created, the eastern states followed Riparian Law from England. Only property owners bordering a stream could use its water on their own land.

Colorado pioneers wanted to do things differently. Our arid landscape demanded a different approach. Ditches were springing up right and left. By 1864, there were already 36 Boulder ditches. The law was playing catch-up with reality on the ground.

From 1861 to 1876, constitutional conventions and legislatures worked hard to come up with new western rules for water, called the Colorado Doctrine.

The Colorado Doctrine: A fusion of three philosophies

The Colorado Doctrine is a complex fusion of three different philosophies from three diverse Colorado communities of the 1860's.


Which philosophy (Radical agrarianism, Acequia traditions, or First-in-time) produced each of the following parts of the Colorado Doctrine?

  1. The water of Colorado belongs to the state.
  2. People can claim a right to use the water. The first-in-time to claim the water is the first-in-right, and has the most senior rights to the water.
  3. Water must be put to beneficial use.
  4. Ditches have the right to cross other folks' lands, to get water to farms away from the creek.

Right, from top to bottom:

Landed gentry, who already owned large tracts of the best land along streams, benefited from Riparian Law. Photo courtesy of FRICO collection.

Radical agrarian populism from farmers on the plains focused on democratizing water to spread the wealth. It rejected aristocratic control of water by the few who owned land along the creeks, and encouraged ditches to spread water across the land to the many. Photo courtesy of FRICO collection.

Acequia traditions from Southern Colorado focused on water sharing, and using water to the greatest community benefit. Water belonged to the entire community. Acequia Madre Pueblo, San Juan. Colorado Historical Society, (CHS.J1365 William Henry Jackson).

First-in-time from the Colorado gold-fields focused on claiming and developing water, so that it was reliable. Water was a private property right. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Branch Library for Local History, Boulder Historical Society Collection, the Nellie Mine.


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