Meeting Greeley’s water needs takes more than diverting water and treating it.
At the heart of the city’s water system is Colorado water law, which establishes the legal framework for water use across the state.
In the past year, Greeley officials purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water. Adam Jokerst, deputy director of water resources for the city, said it’s more water than city had acquired in the past 10 years. Jokerst, who manages the water acquisition program, said the program has about a $9 million budget this year.
“We have a growing population,” he said. “We have to acquire additional water rights.”
An intertwined history
Colorado water law is deeply connected to Greeley history. In the summer of 1874, serious water conflicts sprung up between Greeley and Fort Collins due to a shortage of water in the Cache la Poudre River, according to Water Education Colorado’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Heritage. While Fort Collins’ ditches further upstream were full of water, Greeley’s ditches downstream were running dry, despite having been built prior to the Fort Collins ditches.
Nathan Meeker, who founded the city, as well as the Greeley Tribune, wrote in an editorial for the Greeley Tribune that those who claimed the water first should have first priority, a concept known as “prior appropriation.” The towns agreed to split the river, and rains soon resolved the issue — at least for a while.
The concept that had worked in the wetter east, known as the riparian doctrine, where the landowner along a stream has an automatic right to use its water, wasn’t working for the dry American West. In late 1878, Greeleyites helped shape the template for Colorado water law, based on prior appropriation. The following year, the state legislature enacted the water law system, including court adjudication of water rights and administration by local water commissioners.
Jokerst said he’s tried explaining his work for the city to his parents, who live out east, and it hasn’t really landed.
“The concept of a water right is beyond them,” he said.
What is a water right?
Colorado’s waters are owned by the state and all its citizens, but water rights dictate the right to use the water. Water decrees, issued by water courts, confirm water users’ rights to that water.
Older water decrees were simple, Jokerst said, giving the example of a decree for the city’s senior direct rights, meaning the city has priority to…