First in time, first in right

For opposite reasons as why we created our “Waterschappen” in the Netherlands, there are Water Laws in the Western States of the US. In the states where I have been the last couple of days, Colorado, Utah and Arizona rainfall is pretty scarce. On our field excursion as part of the Changing Lands, Changing Hands conference, our guides tried to explain the extremely complicated water rights system of Colorado. Fortunately, somebody already told me over diner. “You don’t own the water that rains down on your land” my diner partner had said. Eehh?

It means that you cannot put a well on your land or use creek, river or lake water running on or near your land. You can only use water if you have water rights. Water rights are connected to ditches dug by the first settlers in 1860, and to Ditch companies who manage them. Those who claimed first, have more senior rights. The right equals to a share in the company; a certain quantity of water, measured in acre-feet (literally an acre of land with a foot water on top). In years of drought, those who claimed last will not receive any water, only for those with senior rights, the tap will be opened. Not all farm land has water rights, those who farm without, are known as the dry land farmers, usually farming wheat and/or cattle.

Right can be traded separately from the land. Each new development (housing, offices, malls) needs to have water rights too. Water rights are therefore sometimes more worth than the land itself. And it even happens that, in years of drought, it is more profitable for farmers to lease the water rights to a city or county than to farm. 

The Boulder county, one of the counties near Denver has a very progressive land use policy in place ever since 1978, an exception to the rule. This county is active to facilitate a new generation of farmers, such as those willing to start farming vegetables for farmers markets on small plots. We visited one such farmers association, which started two years ago. The land, including the water rights needed, is owned by the Boulder county which leases it to them against reduced prices. Otherwise this enterprise – and to many a dream – would not be possible.

colorado growers association 2 

(picture of Bart Eleveld Oregon State University)


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