Many horse owners in our Foothills communities, along the Front Range, and even throughout the State of Colorado give no thought about the legality of the source of water for their horses. Whether it be a “frost free” spigot, a garden hose running from the house, or plumbed automatic waterers, owners turn on the tap and let the water flow.
However, Colorado Water Commissioner Tim Buckley explains that it is important for owners to understand the legal issues relating to sources of water and its availability for their horses and/or livestock.
According to Buckley, all waters in the state of Colorado are owned by the people of Colorado. The right to use the water or a “water right” is the right to divert or use the water under the prior appropriation system as long as the water is put to a beneficial use. The “State” or Departments of the State such as Division of Parks and Wildlife and others own water rights but are not any different than a private water right holder. The function of the Department of Water Resources is to administer these rights.
Even rain water collected in buckets and barrels; or puddles in the pasture, is not necessarily available for a landowner’s use. Matter of fact, unless a property owner has specific legal rights to use rain water, surface water (puddles, ponds or streams), or even their well water for a specific purpose, they are compelled to leave the water where it is.
If you have ever purchased a property served by a well, hopefully your REALTOR discussed the category of that well and it’s legal uses. Common categories are Household, Domestic, and Livestock. The names of these categories confuse most everyone. After all, wouldn’t Domestic mean indoors?
As a rule of thumb, with multiple noted exceptions, Household is for use only inside the house. No exterior watering of plants, animals or even washing your car in the driveway. If you fill up Fido’s bowl, do it from the kitchen sink. In certain cases a Household well could be augmented (a water court process) to allow for a limited watering of a determined number of horses, or an outside garden or hot tub – but the parameters of use will be very clearly defined and limited.
Domestic wells are more likely to allow for the watering of an outdoor animal like a horse, or a donkey or even maybe a goat. However, “Domestic” does not indicate a blanket permission either. It is important to read the well permit directly, looking for keywords or phrases. Never assume that a Domestic well category gives you the freedom you are looking for without verification. For example, most Domestic wells would not allow for you to board outside horses on your property for profit. In the case of boarding businesses, a Commercial well status is a common requirement.
Another category we run across on older, farm or ranch use properties can be “Livestock”. This category gives broader permissions and allows a wider variety of uses. Cows, horses, goats, etc., can be allowed to be watered from these types of wells. That said, read the permit itself for limitations or further definition.
What about your pond or the creek that runs seasonally or even year round through the back forty? The answer may surprise or even dismay you. Without an adjudicated (again – water court process) water right to use the water out of that pond or creek or ditch, you must not consider it a legal source for watering your horse. To my knowledge the State of Colorado does not currently require you to keep your animal away with a fence or other barrier, but a stern admonition to your animal along the lines of “don’t drink that water” is in order and that water cannot function as the animal’s primary water source.
In some recent years our Foothills communities have enjoyed excellent precipitation totals through wet springs and frequent summer showers. You have noticed both greener grass into August and September, along with uncommon rain showers ruining your picnic well into July. Not only are we grateful for this wonderful moisture and the late grazing our animals enjoy in the pastures, but the Colorado Division of Water sometimes declares a “Free River” status for water right enforcement. In layman’s terms, “Free River” conditions lead to a lighter enforcement of legal water use. If you are curious, we are NOT presently enjoying “Free River” conditions.
How do you find out if your current source of water legally allows you to water your horse? There are several options available to you. Hopefully you received a copy of your well permit, during the Due Diligence period, when you purchased your property (or when the well was drilled if you bought vacant land). Pull it out of the file and read it over, looking for the “type” description. A call to the Colorado Division of Water Ground Water information desk (303) 866-3587 is possibly the simplest solution. Leave your address and usually a return call within 24 hours gives you your well permit number and it’s prescribed use. Many don’t know that walk-ins are welcome M-F from 9-4 at the Colorado Division of Water office at 1313 Sherman St #821 in Denver. The folks there are super helpful and are happy to give you the information you need.
What if you learn that Trigger can’t legally drink the water from your well? Commissioner Buckley offered more than one solution for that situation as well. An expensive alternative would be to add a water right to your well through a Water Court process. This involves a water attorney and a willing Seller but is doable with money, patience and determination. A quicker and more inexpensive alternative would be to install a cistern at your property and to purchase potable water from a number of local vendors. Keeping a record of your purchase history and the number of horses you are watering keeps you out of trouble.
Looking to buy a horse property and wanting to conduct the proper due diligence to ensure that a legal water source for your horse is included? Seek out an experienced REALTOR who specializes in horse properties, farms and ranches. They can guide you through the process. I also recommend hiring a water attorney to conduct a title search to verify any adjudicated water rights, especially in cases where more than a well permit is being transferred. It may cost you several hundred dollars up front, but the peace of mind it brings can easily justify the investment.
Want to learn more? Visit the Division’s website at http://water.state.co.us. Call Commissioner Buckley’s office (303) 501-4298 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You want to be informed. Legal water use is a big deal for residents of Colorado. Heather McWilliams © 2018.