There was a time when understanding water in Colorado was as simple as knowing who got to it first.
But that was a long time ago - nearly 150 years - and understanding water in Colorado has evolved into an endeavor that might require a law degree.
Colorado is often said to be the birthplace of water law, the complex process that appoints water rights to private property owners and cities. Since early settlers first battled for water from the state's rivers, Colorado has documented decades of wrangling over water rights - anything a resident might want to know about the state's water can be found in free online databases. The question is, of course, what does all that data mean.
Two new Colorado businesses are part of a growing statewide to push to familiarize residents with the complex water system by translating the state's data into forms that residents, real estate brokers and water planners can use and understand. This year, the state is embarking on its first water plan, which joins nine groups representing individual water basins to come up with a plan for Colorado's water future. The final plan is due to Gov. John Hickenlooper by December.
While the state grapples with creating the water plan, Ponderosa Advisors LLC's Water Sage and the nonprofit Open Water Foundation have worked to organize and demystify the state's online collections of water data.
"Most of the data is public," said Steve Malers, who founded Open Water two years ago. "The data may be out there, but it's not in a consumable form that people can use for their interest. We try and slow down a little bit and we try and explain the data."
Industries like oil and gas development and transportation have benefited from data revolutions, and water is the next frontier for public data, Malers said.
"We are just getting into that with water and we are going to see a lot of innovation in the next few years," he said.
Kelly Bennett of Water Sage views states as "amazing clearinghouses" for water data, but groups like Water Sage and Open Water can help ordinary people put it to use. Water data isn't just for lawyers - it's for anyone hoping to buy land, for real estate developers, homeowners, cities and counties. Access to data can solve simple problems such as which water rights come with what properties. That struggle inspired the creation of Water Sage after Bennett's family tried to understand water rights on an agricultural property it was trying to buy in Montana, said Bennett, managing partner with Ponderosa.
Colorado and most western states handle water through prior appropriation, meaning water rights are delegated in terms of seniority. While states share some aspects of their water law, they often differ in how water rights are recorded, Bennett said.
Colorado residents benefit from a meticulous system of water rights records that digitizes decades-old documents.
"Colorado does a phenomenal job of publishing huge amounts of data," Bennett said.
While Water Sage and Open Water access public data , ownership of shares in a mutual ditch company are examples of records that the state can't release, said Tom Cech, the director for the One World One Water Center at Metro State University in Denver. Solely relying on programs like Water Sage and Open Water to help purchase water rights may be inadvisable, since neither would have access to some private water rights information, Cech said.
But as tools to help plan water use or to understand the existing water rights on a property, water data-crunchers are extremely helpful, he said.
"I think they are tremendous planning tools," he said. "They are way beyond what we had 10, 20 years ago."
Former water rights attorney Spencer Williams, the business development and consulting manager for Water Sage, disagrees. Those looking to purchase water rights might consult an attorney or engineer, but Water Sage's data offers another perspective.
"Water Sage helps fill a gap - it gives its users access to valuable information that is otherwise difficult or expensive to assemble," said Williams in an email.
As a nonprofit, Open Water focuses on developing software systems for water data and advocating for a better state software system for water information. Among several other projects, the group has helped provide data analysis to agricultural irrigation groups looking to resolve water use issues, Malers said.
Water Sage presents its data on an interactive map, which can be adjusted to include state records on water. The company has uploaded all of the state's available water data into Google Earth, where users can scan an area for water rights and access all documents associated with each right. Water Sage has sites for Colorado, Montana, Texas and Wyoming.
That kind of location-specific data makes the work of real estate brokers much simpler, said Ken Mirr, founder of Mirr Ranch Group, which buys and sells ranch properties in the West.
"You can take all those sources - even wells - and there is different places for different data in each state," Mirr said. "(Water Sage) really helps and it saves quite a bit of time."
While also used for business, some local governments have bought subscriptions to Water Sage - including Douglas County and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Hourly rates for using WaterSage range from $99 to $399, depending, according to the company's website.
Regardless of the business model, Cech advocates for any form of water data transparency as Colorado faces a future with more residents and less water.
"In my mind, anything that improves our knowledge of water data, that's all good," he said. "We have so many people moving to this area ... so we've got to do a better job of making adequate water resources available for the people who move here."