Horses buying land and horse property in Colorado (and their owners) need to know a few quirky things about Colorado well rights!

It isn’t fun being a thirsty horse on land with a well registered without horse Well rights, even if you drink Dos Equus; because you can’t take a bath in beer and horses can’t just drink beer! Just sayin’!

I understand how being a horse you would love the fresh air, evergreens, grasses, abundant sunshine and the enchanting trails here in Colorado; whether it’s in Golden, Evergreen, Conifer, Pine, Black Hawk, Elizabeth or some other verdant location in our rocky mountains and high country. No surprise Forbes Magazine (which you may have read) named the Denver area sixth in the nation for the “Best Places for Business and Careers”; so there are good odds your owner can relocate here.  If they do well, you may be able to snack on some good Colorado or Wyoming hay while you watch Jeopardy and Rocky & Bullwinkle reruns from your professionally decorated and heated horse stall with automatic waterers.

Photo of Horse Property and Colorado San Juan Mountains

One thing you’ll want to know is unless the property has a Well registered “domestic” where it explicitly states the “permitted use” is either for providing water to horses or a permitted use for “livestock” you may get very thirsty (Yes, I know, it’s rather insulting to be included in that term – livestock).  Another less common possibility to get water for a horse is with a Well registered “Household-inside” use that has an additional use for horses or livestock.  Normally, a “Household-inside” use registered Well forbids using the Well water for irrigation, livestock, and horses; however, in grandfathering older Wells, the registration can have some additional uses added that don’t fit what is typically the case.

Domestic use registration for new Wells, which normally includes livestock, and irrigation uses, built since May 8th, 1972 require the land size to be at least 35 acres. That said, some Wells on smaller parcels (even a fraction of an acre) may have a grandfathered registration as domestic Wells. Normally in such a case, the current Well in use on the property or an older Well was registered for their grandfathered historical uses which were evident before May 8th, 1972. Once the prior livestock or horse uses are deemed applicable to the land, with the information from the historical record (often provided by the seller), the Colorado Division of Water Resources attaches those uses to the property. It doesn’t matter if the Well is just one that one rolls a bucket down into, a hand-crank well, or if changes are made to the Well on the property in the future (fracked, drilled deeper, or a new Well is installed).

Incidentally, May 8th, 1972 was also the date from which all new Wells had to be registered with the Colorado Division of Water Resources (they control access to water here in Colorado) and any unregistered wells going forward had to be registered when transferred to a new owner. It is during transfer and sale when the owner normally registers the “grandfathered uses” for wells if not done so previously.

Domestic registration or just supplemental uses added to a more restrictive registration can add substantial value to the land, so it should be in the interest of the seller to add these registrations when possible.

Trail riding in the Rocky Mountains

Don’t be fooled by vacant land listings or those that have a house on them advertising the property as “horse property” or even Wells described as “domestic” when the land is less than 35 acres in size – this is a red flag that needs further investigation.

The first place to check is with the Colorado Division of Water Resources for the Well registration. If that checks out OK for horses or livestock, then the next step is to review the applicable zoning laws and any other State, and local private and public restrictions that may limit livestock or horses on the property.  There are often multiple overlapping jurisdictions governing a property; such as state, county, city, HOA, and restrictions attached to the property deed.

It’s a common scenario here in Colorado for zoning to allow horses or livestock, while the water-Well doesn’t. In most such situations, the only legal option is to truck water into the property and have it stored in a cistern; which is heated or in a heated location to prevent freezing during the colder months. There are water delivery services that can do this on a schedule or at one’s discretion.

Most new Wells, except in certain areas outside of certain watersheds, on land of fewer than 35 acres can only be registered as “Household-Inside Use Only.”  With this registration one can’t water anything outside the house; so such Well-water can’t be used to clean the car, water outdoor potted plants, bathing a horse, filling an outdoor swimming pool or outdoor hot tub.

Horse Enjoying an Outdoor Showering
Horse Enjoying an Outdoor Showering

The other big surprise for many relocating to Colorado is that one can’t store precipitation (as in water) that falls on your parcel or onto any roof without limit; that includes anything that eventually turns into water, such as, snow or ice.  However, as of  May 2016, House Bill 1005 was passed in Colorado allowing the collection of roof water in two barrels with a maximum combined capacity of 110 gallons.  This collected rainwater can be used for non-potable outdoor uses; such as horse washing, car washing, lawn, and garden irrigation. These and other restrictive water laws are in place to protect holders of senior water rights farther down-stream or down the water-basin.

By the way, I normally help with this kind of due diligence. Since the Well is so important to home ownership.  Where present and relied upon, Well production records and registration are some of the first things I look into for my clients even before looking at property; particularly since many Wells are problematic; such as, having a low production, being shallow, failing or having poor water quality; besides, specific use restrictions. Regardless, it would be reckless to end up buying a property without fully investigating the water and well uses permitted and testing the well during the inspection phase of a purchase contract, even though it may have performed very well in the past.

It should be pointed out that some properties have streams running through them, or they have a pond or lake, in which case any water rights attached to the land from such a water source will need to be investigated. In the case of such deeded water rights, it is advisable to hire a water attorney to verify the uses being transferred.

Also, if one’s owner is planning a commercial enterprise with horses (boarding, riding lessons, equestrian therapy, etc.), a water attorney may be necessary to apply for a commercial use if one is not already granted for the water from a stream or a well or other body of water on the land. 

Having now read this post you may truly be the “most interesting horse in the world” and hope to see you trotting and galloping over happy trails here in beautiful Colorado someday soon!

Don’t stay thirsty my Equus friend!