Vail Daily column: Water rights are complicated

Joan Harned

Dear Joan,

We are currently looking for a new home and our first choice would be to find a home with a little acreage so that we can get a horse for our daughter when she gets old enough to care for one. We have been told that “water rights” are important, but very expensive. Do we need “water rights” to have a horse? Can we get “water rights” if we find a place we like that does not have any? Can you help us understand how “water rights” work in Colorado?

Dear Acreage Buyers,

The simple answer is, you do not have to have water rights to have a horse. But your zoning and/or covenants will have to allow horses. You will need to feed the horses year-round and make sure they have an ample supply of water, which you would not necessarily have to do if you had water rights and/or live water available to your pasture. And yes, water rights in the West are valuable, so you will pay more for land with water rights, but you should be able to receive the money back when you sell.

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Do not feel unknowledgeable that you do not know about water and well rights in Colorado because this is a very interesting and often confusing topic in the West. We have a lot of attorneys that specialize in water (many in Glenwood Springs) almost exclusively because it is such a complicated process here. I have to refer you directly to an attorney if you are going to acquire any water rights so that they can research the water rights you may get or help you find some that you may acquire (which is not an easy or inexpensive process).

Things to know

If you find a property with water rights, then there are many facets you will want to know: How large the appropriation is (usually computed in CFS — cubic feet per second) or sometimes there are pond rights; the seniority number; and the history of how long the flow lasts in the summer most years. It does not matter how much you are entitled to if the water runs out. Also, you will need to investigate the well permit if the property is out of town and on well water.

It is not always the case, but usually if your property is less than 35 acres, then the well permit is for “household use only” and you are not allowed to use any water outside of the house — no pasture watering, no gardens, no car washing, etc. If you have 35 acres or more, then the well is usually considered a “domestic well” and you are allowed to irrigate up to one acre of land, use it for up to three homes and use it to water domestic animals and livestock. I have just scratched the surface about the items you can learn about water in this state. My recommendation would be that you find a real estate broker who is familiar with ranch land transactions to help you find the best property for your family’s needs, and in your comfort range of pricing.

The broker can then direct you to good attorneys, if and when you need them. It sounds like you have a fun investigation ahead of you and a great opportunity for your daughter to have a wonderful companion while learning many important life skills.

Joan Harned is an owner and broker for Keller Williams Mountain Properties and heads up Team Black Bear, her own real estate team. Harned has been selling real estate in Eagle County for 27 years, is a past chairman of the Vail Board of Realtors, past Realtor of the Year, past director on the Great Outdoors Colorado Board and a member of the Luxury and Land Institutes. Contact Harned with your real estate questions at, 970-337-7777 or

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