Colorado Water Trust

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Colorado Water Trust* (“CWT”) is a non-profit conservation organization based in the state of Colorado. Its mission is to engage in and support voluntary, market-based efforts to restore and protect streamflows using permanent acquisitions of water, leases of water, and physical solutions. CWT is also a resource to Colorado land trusts encountering water issues in connection with their land conservation activities.


In 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need to “correlate the activities of mankind with some reasonable preservation of the natural environment”[1] and created the state’s Instream Flow Program with the passage of Senate Bill 97 (“SB 97”). SB 97 gave the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) the exclusive authority to hold instream flow water rights. Prior to enactment of this law, the legal status of instream flow water rights was the subject of debate. Use of water in Colorado is governed by the Prior Appropriation Doctrine wherein water rights are assigned priorities and decreed by the Colorado water courts, courts of special jurisdiction within the state. With the passage of SB 97, using water rights to preserve and protect streams was confirmed as legitimate and lawful, although only the CWCB could use water rights for those activities.[2] In all respects these water rights called instream flows are treated just like more traditional water rights. They belong to specific stretches of river; have specific flow amounts; are held as property and monitored; and have priority dates, so they are administered within the “first in time, first in right” system. Additionally, when a water right is changed for use in the Instream Flow Program in Colorado water court, it retains its priority date; for example, a senior irrigation right becomes a senior instream flow right. SB 97 was hailed as a powerful tool for the protection of Colorado’s rivers, but many felt that the program it created was underutilized. In 2000, a group of water attorneys, engineers, and conservationists began to meet to brainstorm ways to bolster the program. The meetings culminated in the founding of the Colorado Water Trust in 2001. The founders envisioned CWT acting as a facilitator for the state’s Instream Flow Program, taking on transfer processes such as due diligence investigations and providing additional avenues of funding for instream flow water transactions.


Water trusts and organizations that use instream flow transactions as a tool are springing up throughout the West, with statewide water trusts operating in four states—Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Each works within its state’s water allocations system. CWT works within the existing Colorado legal framework to transfer water rights to instream flow purposes.[3] Specialized staff help water rights holders, from individuals to institutions, participate in instream flow protection by providing the unique skills necessary to guide water rights transactions through a process that can be complex. Additionally, with expertise in fundraising, CWT can act as a supplementary funding source for water rights destined for the state’s Instream Flow Program.

CWT accomplishes its mission through three program areas:

Acquisitions. CWT acquires decreed water rights through voluntary transactions to benefit aquatic ecosystems. Willing water rights owners can donate, sell, or lease their water rights to be used in the Instream Flow Program through an acquisition process. The suitability of water right for the Instream Flow Program is based on a number of criteria including but not limited to: an evaluation of the natural environment that may be preserved or improved by the proposed acquisition; potential injury to existing decreed water rights; the location of the water right on the stream; the cost of the transaction; and the ability of the acquired water right to be administered.[4] If the water right proves to be appropriate for the state’s program, CWT works in partnership with the CWCB to move the water right through the process of changing the decreed use from its original consumptive use to a new instream use. Physical and Structural Solutions. CWT works with existing water users to secure streamflow benefits through physical and structural solutions. These solutions may include headgate and delivery-system upgrades that make more water available downstream, improving delivery efficiencies, application of innovative agricultural technologies, and storage releases or changes in reservoir management that can provide additional flow in streams where releases will benefit the riparian ecosystem. Technical Assistance. CWT acts as a resource to Colorado’s land trust community through general and individual technical assistance and education.


  1. ^ Colorado Revised Statutes §37-92-102(3)
  2. ^ Merriman, Dan and Anne M. Janicki. "Colorado's Instream Flow Program--How It Works and Why It's Good For Colorado" (PDF). Colorado Water Conservation Board. Retrieved 30 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Charney, Sasha (2005). Decades Down The Road--An Analysis of Instream Flow Programs in Colorado and the Western United States (PDF). 
  4. ^ A full list of rules concerning Colorado's Instream Flow Program can be found in 2 CCR 408-2

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