Water rights in Colorado are prioritized and administered based on the year of their decree and date of appropriation. The oldest decreed water rights are most senior and are entitled to divert their decreed flow rate when water is in short supply. If there is not enough water in the stream at their diversion point, they can place a call for the delivery of water against junior water users to satisfy their full demand. The State Engineer and Division Engineers can also shut down water diversions that cannot be adequately administered to protect other water users.
In many parts of Colorado, the streams have been over-appropriated for 100 years or more at certain times of the year, and calls for water rights may be as senior as the 1860s. Water rights on the main stem of the Yampa River had never been called out until 2018. It happened again in 2020. Those highly publicized calls were placed to protect water rights decreed in 1951 through 1963 near Dinosaur National Monument. The calls lasted about 23 days in 2018 and only ten days in 2020, assuming the early September snowstorm puts an end to calls this year. Those calls would have lasted longer if it had not been for tremendous cooperation between the water users, Division Engineer, Tri-State, Colorado Water Trust, and the Colorado River District.
During those calls, the Division Engineer and water commissioners shut down upstream water diversions on the Yampa River and its tributaries, starting with those without a decree, and then those without a working headgate or measuring device, and all decreed water rights junior to the calling priority. Because many water users did not have adequate structures, more diversions were curtailed than would generally be required to satisfy these priorities.
On several upstream tributaries of the Yampa River, calls are more frequent, more wide-ranging in priority, and more long-lasting. The Bear River, Elk River, and Fish Creek, for example, have calls ranging in priority from 1888 to 1988, which may last from a few days to several months, with the priority of the call sometimes remaining constant and sometimes changing daily.
Under any of these circumstances, it can be challenging to rely on a junior water right or develop a new water right from these streams. Water users can learn to live with those senior calls, or they can take the following steps to reduce or avoid being called out:
1. Decree your water right.
2. Install and maintain a functioning headgate.
3. Install and maintain an accurate measuring system.
4. Have any changes to your structures inspected and approved by the water commissioner or Division Engineer.
5. Don’t divert more than you need.
6. Lease or buy storage water to use on your property.
7. Build a storage pond and decree a storage water right to use during a call.
8. Decree a change of water right for use on your property.
9. Decree an augmentation plan.
10. Request approval of a temporary substitute supply plan.
If you have a water right that has been called out, or you would like to defend your water right from being called out, the best course of action is to hire a water professional. Consider hiring one of the Lyons Gaddis water team for the best results.