The history of water in Loveland, CO. reflects the history of water in the State of Colorado, and the history of the land.
Before white man arrived to the area Arapaho hunting parties traveled through The Big Thompson Valley, camping along the river which some called “The Big Pipe” near sulphur springs that bubbled from the ground on the southeast side of Mariana Butte.
When explorers made their way westward they used the low-lying river as a path to pierce the wilderness. From 1837 until approximately 1842 the explorer Philip Thompson explored, trapped, and traveled the river. Because of his journeys the river would be named for him – The Big Thompson River. Additionally, he may have been the first white man in the valley.
In 1843 John C. Fremont’s expedition followed the river, which he described at the time as “a fine river”, with depth and width. (It is estimated at the time he visited the river was some sixty feet wide and three feet deep.)
In 1861, three years after the mountain man and settler Mariano Medina settled on banks of The Big Thompson River, and established Namaqua, the Colorado Territory was established. Larimer County, one of the original counties, was created shortly thereafter, with a population of only 100. The same year a drought caused crop failure, and settlers determined to stay began to divert water from The Big Thompson River to water their gardens and crops. During the 1860s and the 1870s, using this technique agriculture in the area grew as an industry. So, too, did the need for water. With an annual rainfall of less than fifteen inches a means of retaining water became an issue of great importance and contention.
In 1876, when the State of Colorado was established, Water Rights Laws concerning surface water became part of the state constitution. It was declared that the water of every natural stream is public property, and it was established that an appropriation system would be used to determine how individuals acquire rights to use water.
Under this system persons may appropriate water even though they intend to use the water far from the source – a stream. The law in the Colorado State Constitution states that whoever first claims the water for beneficial use has established the right to use it. The date of appropriation then becomes the basis for determining which rights are senior and which rights are junior. This principle of “first in time, first in right” is known as ‘The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation’. It differs from The Riparian Doctrine in the humid eastern portion of the United States of America, where owners of land along a stream are entitled to full use of the water, as long as it is undiminished in quality or quantity. Two main classes of appropriation are identified in the Colorado State Constitution: 1) Diversion of water from the stream for immediate use (direct flow rights). 2) Diversion from the stream for storage for late ruse. A direct flow appropriator cannot store his water for later use, and the storage appropriator usually may fill his reservoir only once a year. In each of the two main classes, uses are also prioritized in order of importance: Domestic, agricultural, and then manufacturing and mining.
Because of this law Colorado has become a leader in the legal concept of water rights, now generally adopted and used in all western United States.