Water is essential to life.
It is used to generate power, irrigate crops, for drinking water, and
to support various ecosystems. Colorado has an arid climate, with most
precipitation falling as snow during the winter far away from the population
centers in the Front Range. Boulder receives approximately 18 inches
of precipitation a year. Snowmelt during the spring creates a surge
of water that flows down through the rivers and creeks. Often during
the remainder of the year the majority of the rivers and streams are
too low to provide for the multiple users. To overcome this seasonal
scenario, water is dammed and stored. Water is our most managed resource.
As a result of the scarcity
of water in the West, complex water distribution systems, water laws,
and water agencies have been developed to manage this precious resource.
Settlers migrating west quickly
realized that western land and water resources were much different than
those in the humid eastern region they had come from. Due to the aridity
of the West, miners had to develop a new system for water allocation
and use. The water allocation system used in the east, riparian water
rights which tied water to adjoining lands, would not work in a region
where much of the usable land was not adjacent to the rivers and
streams. The solution to western water allocation was found in the doctrine
of prior appropriation, "first in time, first in right", which was born
in the hills of California where miners battled it out for unlimited
use of water for their mining operations. The doctrine of prior appropriation
was later adopted by farmers who started diverting rivers for irrigated
farming. The historic "Left Hand vs. Coffin" decision
of 1881, in which the Colorado Court ruled in favor of a farmer who
diverted water from the South St. Vrain into James and Left Hand Creek,
set the stage for what has become known as the "prior appropriation
doctrine" in Colorado. (Click here for more on the history
of irrigation in the Boulder Valley from local author Anne Dyni,
or visit BASIN History.)
The prior appropriation doctrine
also controls the distribution of water in Colorado. Those water users
that were here first have "senior" rights and get first call on water.
However, they can only use as much as they have used in the past. Use
is defined as "beneficial use," which can be very loosely interpreted.
"Beneficial use" in the Colorado Constitution gave top priority to domestic
use, second priority to agricultural use, and third to manufacturing
The first time local water
rights were adjudicated, or recognized by the Boulder County District
Court was in 1882. Ninety-eight ditch companies were accorded a priority
right and irrigation ditches were constructed to bring water from South
Boulder Creek, the St. Vrain River, Boulder Creek, and the Big Thompson
River to irrigate the area's first crops of wheat and turnips.
Today, many streams are over
allocated, that is that every drop of water is spoken for by a user.
Sometimes there is not enough water left for the fish and other organisms
that use the stream.
Because water has many users
it is important to understand that managing water involves tradeoffs.
Extensive negotiation along legal, scientific, and social lines occurs
when determining how to distribute water. Clean drinking water might
have to be balanced against leaving sufficient water in the stream for
aquatic life, agriculture might have to be balanced against hydroelectric
Acre-foot: the amount
of water that would cover one acre at a depth of one
foot (325,900 gallons). It is enough water to meet the inside, lawn
watering, and industrial needs of 4-5 urban people for one year.
Doctrine of Prior Appropriation:
"first in time, first in right"
Water rights: legally
established right to appropriate water from a given
In-stream flow: water
rights that are used to insure enough water remains in
the stream to support aquatic life.
"Pass the Jug" Activity
There are a number of ways
to play "Pass the Jug". If you are in a classroom situation
your teacher may have you apply local water law and history to the activity.
A simple way to play, however, is to take a group of people, each with
an empty glass. Have each stand in a row and pass a jug or bottle of
water around, everyone taking as much as they want. The people at the
beginning of the row are like those with senior water rights ("first
in time, first in right"). Those towards the end of the row are
not such a high priority. Will there be enough water for them, especially
if it is a hot day and there is a small jug?
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