Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Colorado Doctrine set the standards under which a jurisdiction accepts appropriation water law as the fundamental and exclusive water law. The Colorado Doctrine is also known as the doctrine of pure appropriation. It contrasts with systems under which appropriative law coexists with other types of water law.

The doctrine was developed in the late nineteenth century and is named for the state in which it originated. Colorado had adopted appropriation law in its constitution upon statehood (1876), declaring that rivers in the state belonged not to the federal government but to Coloradans, who could appropriate them. Still, questions remained as to the application of common law riparian rights in conjunction with appropriation rights. Up until that time most decisions regarding appropriation law mirrored those in California, where appropriation originated. However, at the time of Colorado statehood California's water law system had evolved to also recognize common law riparian rights, appropriative water rights, and Spanish pueblo rights.

In 1882 the Colorado Supreme Court settled Colorado's water law issue in the case of Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Company, a water dispute between agricultural interests in northeastern Colorado. The court found that the water user who had established the first use of the water had the superior right to continue his or her use despite a riparian claim by an opposing party. The court concluded that riparian law did not exist in Colorado and established the appropriation doctrine as the exclusive water law of the state. Later, among Plains states, Wyoming (1896), New Mexico (1900), and Montana (1921) adopted the Colorado model.

Theron Josephson Ferris State University

Dunbar, Robert G. Forging New Rights in Western Water. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Hutchins, W. A. Water Rights in the Nineteen Western States. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1974.

Trelease, Frank J., and George A. Gould. Cases and Materials on Water Law, 4th ed. St. Paul MN: West Publishing Company, 1986.

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