3 Essential Questions for Understanding Your Water Rights



Second home by a stream

A growing number of people are at least thinking about the acquisition of a secure second home in the country, a rural retirement, or just establishing a bug-out hide-away. You’ll need to master one life-critical issue that you’ve probably taken for granted until now – 24/7/365 access to ample clean water.

For a relatively small investment, you can pick up a piece of land and develop it over time into a fine home or fabulous retreat. We interviewed a savvy survivalist named Will Barlow to help you bring you up to speed fast on the vital issue of access to water in rural locations.

To Understand Water Rights, Ask These 3 Probing Questions…

Follow these guidelines when talking to the local water authorities, real estate agents, and landowners:

  • Does “First in Time, First in Right” apply on this land? Centuries-old water rights systems are in effect in many areas. The surface stream you see on a property may not belong to you for use. Some areas use what is known as the “First in Time, First in Right” rule. With this system water rights are based on appropriation date. It doesn’t matter if water reaches you first – if a rancher downstream has water rights that are older than yours, he gets his water first. When there is a drought, water is distributed in limits to the first 1-20 owners and then, when more water is available, the 2nd 20 owners will receive water, and so on.
  • Is there a pre-existing well? If there is a pre-existing well on the property, you most likely will qualify for a Domestic Well Permit if you need to replace that well. If not, you may want to call in a local consultant to explore water sources on the property. If you choose to drill a well, be very clear about the purpose of the permit. Permits vary among class of use – like for household purposes only, or if you are maintaining livestock, or establishing an agricultural farm.The cost of drilling a well can be high, and it increases with depth. In southern Colorado, a 600-foot well with casing can cost about $14,000, and the pump itself can cost between $6,000-$12,000. You may wish to avoid these costs and risks by limiting your property search to those with established water resources and systems.
  • Will I need a water permit, and do I have a water right? There is a difference between surface rights and water rights. Work closely with your local authorities to learn how this applies to your property. These officials may seem bureaucratic, but if you work with them in a friendly manner, they are likely to respond in kind.
  • Have a cistern water system. A cistern is a sealed underground receptacle designed to hold water. Twelve-hundred-gallons capacity is recommended. You can fill your cistern with your share of the local water when the water is running high. Then if a drought hits, you’ll have water still on hand and available. It can also hold hauled water should you need it during times of drought.
  • Secure a back-up pump. Your water resource is only as good as your ability to get it out of the ground. Consider securing a back-up pump. When the pump broke down on a small land parcel just outside La Veta, Colorado, the homeowners association had to scramble to arrange for hauled water from almost 2 hours away. You don’t want to find yourself in such a situation, losing the self-reliance you worked hard to achieve.
  • Monitor the quality of the water source regularly. If you relocate to a small rural community, see if you can find someone who is – or is willing to become – certified as a Water System Operator for Small Water Systems. In rural settings, very few officials have these qualifications. It can take days to weeks for an official to come check your water system or provide maintenance. The water system operator can take on such tasks as checking for bacteria and monitoring the production of the well (typically in gallons per minute) for the good of the community.

Take a Long-Term View

  • Protect Your Natural Water Supply. Many people living in the city or suburbs are not even aware of how they get their water, but as their water sources begin to dry up, city planners start to look to rural land for more water. Consult with your Water Supply Commission to learn what policies are in place to protect your water rights from this type of risk.
  • Think Ahead. Ask what the long-term plan is for the Water Supply System; learn where the vulnerable areas are and ask what the plans are to avoid them. For instance, a new water system facility can cost up to $800,000. Applications for Government Loans will need to be submitted and will take time to process and install.

Who will be responsible for seeing this through? Get to know your neighbors – you need each other to work together for self-reliance.