When one thinks about court decisions that have defined the nation, for good or for ill, historic cases such as Madison v. Marbury, Brown v. Board of Education or Gideon v. Wainright come to mind.
But one scarcely realizes that the existence of present-day Colorado Springs and Denver, cities located far from any major water source, was made possible by a decision of the Colorado Supreme Court during 1882.
Coffin v. Left Hand ditch was filed in Boulder District Court on Nov. 23, 1880. For more than 20 years, farmers in the Boulder Valley had been diverting water from the various streams that flowed from the mountains to irrigate their lands. These diversions resulted in frequent disputes and, at first, Coffin looked like an ordinary such quarrel.
But Coffin, the plaintiff, was using Riparian Law to support his claim and The Left Hand ditch company, the defendant, was using the so-far uncodified “First-in-time, first-in-right” common law of the West.
The Left Hand ditch company, which had first diverted water from Left Hand creek, had taken all the available water from the stream, leaving nothing for Coffin. Armed confrontations ensued, during which Coffin and his allies destroyed Left Hand’s diversion structures and Left Hand hired “sufficient numbers of armed men” to protect the rebuilt structures.
Two years later, the Colorado Supreme Court decided the suit in favor of the ditch company, thereby making prior appropriation the law of the land, and rendering moot all claims based upon Riparian law.
This case became the basis for water law throughout the west – hence “the Colorado doctrine.”