Lafayette residents could face fines up to $500 for violating the city's new restrictions on outdoor water usage. Credit: UBC Micrometeorology

In June of this year, the City of Lafayette imposed year-round limitations on water use. Focused on outdoor consumption, residents are allowed to irrigate their lawns only three days a week. And on those three days, irrigating must be done between the hours of 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. — unless the watered area is a city-owned facility, like a golf course. Other exemptions include watering by hand using a hose with an automatic shut-off valve, and irrigation for commercial agriculture.

If residents fail to adhere to these new requirements — for instance, by watering the sidewalk in front of their house — they could face fines up to $500.

With Lafayette’s proximity to Boulder, such limitations raise questions as to why one city would enact water restrictions while its neighbor offers only suggestions for mindful usage, when both face the same underlying drought and global warming. The reason, according to Kim Hutton, Boulder’s water resources manager, lies in the complexity of Colorado water law.

“Every community has a unique water rights portfolio,” Hutton said. “It’s really a matter of how that community has developed over time, what supplies they’ve been able to procure, and what their water use is like.”

Hutton’s mention of “supplies” refers to the water rights a community has been able to buy over time. 

Colorado’s water rights operate on a first-come, first-served basis: Ditches put to use earlier have priority over those established later. From this framework, it stands to reason that a relatively younger city like Lafayette (founded in 1888) might not have the same priorities as an older one like Boulder (founded in 1871) simply because Boulder had a head start in putting water to use. 

Though the water law system was established in 1888, the same year Lafayette was founded, those using water prior to that year were able to get decrees (rights) dating back to when they first started using water — so long as they could prove it. As Hutton said: “Everyone [using water] prior to 1888 had to come to court and say: ‘Here’s evidence I started using water in a certain year,’ and the state issued them a decree for whatever year [they could prove] they started using water.”

Another factor is the resources available for a city to acquire such rights. From the 1920s through the ‘60s, Boulder purchased a number of senior water rights — high priority water rights — to ensure the growing municipality would have access to sufficient water even in dry years. But if another city did not have the assets to purchase such senior water rights, ditches whose rights were held by private citizens could theoretically maintain priority over the city they flowed through.

“Because every community has their own separate water supplies, something like this can happen where one community might be in a better position during dry years or drought years [than another],” Hutton said.

It seems the City of Lafayette is working to reposition itself from a water standpoint, recently acquiring rights at the cost of $12,512,000, according to Colorado Hometown Weekly. Purchased from the Colorado-Big Thompson project, the city will join much of Northeastern Colorado in receiving an increasing portion of their water from the beginnings of the Colorado River, pumped through the Continental Divide from the Western Slope. 

The City of Lafayette did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Boulder Reporting Lab.

Whatever one’s water rights portfolio, most towns seem to agree about water use. Don’t waste the precious resource by watering your driveway or turning on your sprinklers between the inefficient hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m when a large portion of the moisture will be lost to evaporation and wind. And don’t indulge your plants unnecessarily.

“A lot of people aren’t necessarily paying attention to when their vegetation actually needs water,” Hutton said, referring to automatic timers that turn on whether plants are thirsty or not. “If it’s been raining, we should encourage people to turn off their sprinklers.”

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email:

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1 Comment

  1. Because Boulder could outbid poorer places for water rights. Because they can. Just like Denver Water can impose the Gross Dam expansion on Boulder. It’s a kiss-up and shit-down system.

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