Starting with an 1879 statute, the Colorado General Assembly assigned the duty of setting water right priority dates and amounts to the district courts. Colorado’s court adjudication process differs from almost all other Western states, which use an administrative state agency permit system. A water court decree confirms a water right, but does not create it. Actual application of water to a beneficial use creates a water right to surface water and tributary groundwater.
Water Court Locations
In 1969, the Colorado General Assembly created seven water divisions based on the major watersheds of the state. The water court for each division is headquartered in the following locations:
- Greeley: South Platte, Republican, and Laramie River basins
- Pueblo: Arkansas River Basin
- Alamosa: Rio Grande Basin
- Montrose: Gunnison, Little Dolores portions of the Dolores River, and San Miguel River basins
- Glenwood Springs: Colorado River Basin (except the Gunnison River Basin)
- Steamboat Springs: Yampa, White, Green, and North Platte River basins
- Durango: San Juan River Basin and portions of the Dolores River
In Colorado, water courts have jurisdiction over all water right applications for surface water, tributary groundwater, nontributary groundwater, Denver Basin groundwater outside of designated groundwater basins, and geothermal groundwater. In addition, they review cases of reasonable diligence for conditional water rights, changes of water rights, exchanges and augmentation plans, and appeals from certain state engineer or division engineer actions, such as enforcement orders and approvals of temporary changes of water rights and substitute water supply plans.
Water courts also have jurisdiction to review cases where the state engineer and division engineer have refused to enforce reductions or implement shutdowns of undecreed water uses or decreed junior water rights after a “call” was placed by a senior water right. Appeal of any water court decision goes directly to the Colorado Supreme Court. Water court decrees set the priority date for water rights based on the year in which the application is filed and, within that year, the date when the water appropriation was initiated.