The state of Colorado recognizes the direct connection between surface water – that found in rivers and streams – and ground water – that contained in subsurface aquifers. The depletion of one source has a direct impact on the health and supply of the other.

This connection between surface and ground water underpins much of Colorado water law.

Consequently, few factors affect the value of land more than the availability and permitted use of water. For those living in a municipality, the presence of city utilities means little more thought or effort is required than turning on the faucet, lawn sprinkler or garden hose. Step outside city limits into the unincorporated county, however, and it is a whole different scenario.

Aside from county zoning restrictions, the next biggest factor to consider when looking to purchase a property in an unincorporated area is water. What kind of well permit does the property qualify for? Is outside watering allowed? If so, how much? Can I water animals? What about a garden?

In general household-use wells are “exempt” from inclusion in the priority system and as such do not require augmentation. These exempt wells are capped at a maximum production of 15 gallons a minute, and the water can only be used for domestic purposes.

Any lot of more than 35 acres is granted a “domestic exempt” well permit. This generally allows for servicing up to three residences, outside irrigation of up to 1 acre and also allows for the drawing of water for livestock. However, depending on the circumstances of an individual property, the state may impose further restrictions.

For example, there are properties less than 35 acres in size that have a domestic exempt permit. This usually comes about where such a property was subdivided after the domestic exempt well permit was issued.

The state may decide to “grandfather in” certain aspects of the original permit, for example allowing for continuation of outside watering, but limit the number of residences that can draw off the well. Or, it may decide to change the status of the well from “domestic exempt” to “in-house.”

An “in-house”-use well is generally issued for any property less than 35 acres in size. As the name implies, this type of well permit is more strictly regulated and only allows for use of the water within the walls of the house – no outside watering, no garden, no animals, no irrigation.

Depending on the location of the property, it may be possible to purchase extra water in the form of augmentation to allow for limited outside watering – a vegetable garden or the keeping of animals.

In the Upper Arkansas Valley, this augmentation program is overseen by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. Augmentation places water stored in several different reservoirs into the nearest stream to offset the depletion of groundwater caused by the increased drawing of the well.

Property owners within a certain geographic area can apply for an augmentation certificate. If approved, once the fee is paid, a meter is placed on the well and an annual reading is taken to determine overall water usage.

In conclusion, a domestic exempt well can mean different things for different properties. Subdividing a property may alter the nature of the permit. Augmentation may or may not be available. The moral of the story is to always carefully research the well permit that accompanies a specific property.