What are Designated Groundwater Basins?

Pop Quiz:

Which of the following is not a designated groundwater basin?

A)  Kiowa-Bijou          B)  Otero Creek     C)  Upper Big Sandy

Answer: B) Otero Creek. Colorado has eight Designated Groundwater Basins. They are Upper Crow Creek, Camp Creek, Northern High Plains, Southern High Plains, Upper Black Squirrel, Upper Big Sandy, Kiowa-Bijou and Lost Creek.

Colorado has a complex regulatory and administrative scheme for water rights and the use of water in the state. Most people are familiar with water courts and the state engineer’s office as entities they’ll have to engage with when pursuing, protecting, acquiring or changing water rights or solving surface water issues. However, some areas of the state have such little surface water that they use an entirely different system of regulation. These areas are known as Designated Groundwater Basins and their water rights and well permits are overseen by both the Colorado Groundwater Commission (CGWC) and Groundwater Management Districts that reside within the basins.

Their designation and how they’re governed can be confusing for the uninitiated. Here, M&W’s Craig Lis explains how these Designated Groundwater Basins work. As part of his long and varied career with water rights, Craig has had the distinct experience of being a team lead for designated groundwater basins when he worked for Colorado’s Office of the State Engineer.

What are designated groundwater basins?

Designated Groundwater Basins are regions of the state where most of the water has been derived from groundwater supplies or in areas where groundwater would not be available to fulfill decreed surface water rights. Under a formal process dictated by statute, these basins were declared to contain designated groundwater. These designated basins have their own standards and processes for determining rights to groundwater in alluvial aquifers, as well as non-tributary and not non-tributary groundwater in the Denver, Dawson, Arapahoe and Laramie Fox Hills aquifers, and other bedrock aquifers.

Source: Colorado Geological Survey

Source: Colorado Geological Survey

In the image above, you can see the colored areas of the map delineating the Designated Groundwater Basins and the dotted lines within those areas denote the management districts within each of the basins.

Why aren’t these areas managed the same way as the rest of the state where the water courts preside?

There are a couple of reasons for that. The big concept here is to allow for more local control. The CGWC is at a state level, but each basin has the opportunity to form groundwater management districts within them who have authority pertaining to small capacity well permits, and final permits for large capacity wells. Small capacity well permits and large capacity well permits are akin to exempt well permits and non-exempt well permits, respectively, in the remainder of the state.

The other reason is groundwater behaves differently from surface water. Different considerations have to be made when managing groundwater– such as the aquifer depletion rates and well to well interactions. Having a separate, specialized management system operated by those who understand these specific issues, especially at a local level, makes sense.

How different are the regulations to areas outside of the designated basins?

The standards developed by the CGWC for appropriations from Denver Basin aquifers are similar to, but not the same, as the standards for these aquifers outside the designated basins. The standards for alluvial and other bedrock aquifers are more varied than those in effect outside of designated basins.

The reason for this is that the Commission, operating under statutes, can pass additional rules and guidelines to determine how they’ll handle specific issues. In addition, the thirteen local groundwater management districts within designated groundwater basins have authority to adopt rules regarding the issuance of small capacity well permits and to further manage and administer diversions from existing permitted high capacity wells. The water courts don’t do this, since the State Engineer, rather than the water court, is the administrative authority outside of designated ground water basins.

Are the rules and management processes the same across all designated basins?

Yes and no. Though there are statutes and rules that apply to all designated basins, there are also many rules and processes that only apply to specific basins since the goal was to provide more control on a local level. For example, in addition to well spacing requirements, the groundwater in the Northern High Plains Designated Basin is allocated based on a specified water level decline over a 100-year period, and the groundwater in the Southern High Plains Designated Basin is allocated using a predetermined volume of water per acre of land to be irrigated. This is where specific knowledge of the different basins and their management districts becomes crucial when pursuing something like a well permit in these areas.

At Martin and Wood, we’ve had the pleasure of assisting both in the creation of Designated Groundwater Basins and in helping our clients navigate their processes as they apply for permits or a change in existing water rights.

Still have questions about Designated Groundwater Basins? Contact us today!