Coffin V Left Hand


Coffin V Left Hand

The Coffin V Left Hand Ditch case was filed in Boulder District Court on November 23, 1880. At first it looked like an ordinary water dispute. But Coffin's side was using Riparian Law to support their claims, and Left Hand Ditch was using the new "First-in-time, first-in-right" common law of the West.

"First-in-time, first-in-right" was a rule made up by early settlers as they figured out how to live in this arid land with limited water supplies. It was born in the California goldfields where men staked claims for gold and water.

"Riparian Law" originated in soggy England and was the law of the US government, so far away back east. Riparian Law allowed people living along a stream to use its water on their land, but they could not harm their downstream neighbors by diverting water.

The Coffin V Left Hand case went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. In 1882, the Court decided to follow where the people of Colorado had led. "First-in-time, first-in-right" became Colorado law 23 years after Boulder's first ditch was dug. This case set water law for most of the Western United States and became known as the Colorado Doctrine or Prior Appropriation.

Coffin V Left Hand: The Story

The Left Hand Ditch started in 1860, as a small ditch off Left Hand Creek.  One very dry summer, Left Hand Creek dried up and the ditch users went up to its headwaters just west of the present-day Peak-to-Peak Highway. They found a low ridge separating their dry creek from the very wet South St. Vrain River. They dug a ditch from the St. Vrain to bring water over to Left Hand Creek, and filed for rights to the St. Vrain. Through the 1860's and 70's, they enlarged their ditch, and eventually built a dam to divert even more St. Vrain water into the Left Hand Ditch.

In June 1879, farmers near Longmont were disturbed to find NO water coming down the St. Vrain River to their land. They went upstream to investigate, and found the Left Hand Ditch taking all of "their" water over into Left Hand Creek. They tore out part of the dam (some say dynamite was used), and went home happy.

The next day Left Hand farmers woke up to find NO water in their ditch and were very unhappy! They went up and rebuilt the dam, and left "a sufficient force of men to keep the ditch full of water."

Some kind of confrontation took place when the St. Vrain farmers returned to tear out the dam a second time. Guns may have been involved. However, by July 3rd, the Left Hand Ditch was preparing a law suit against the St. Vrain farmers for damage to the dam. The rest is history.

Above, left: This hand drawn map is one of the original documents of Coffin V Left Hand Ditch, at the Colorado State Archives. A few original documents from the Coffin V Left Hand case can be seen at the Colorado State Archives, filed under case #885, #1103 and #1203.

Above, right: The headgate of the Left Hand Ditch on the South St. Vrain, where the famous confrontation took place.

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