Colorado, We Have a Problem

A Deep Dive Into Our State’s Water Challenges and What to Do About Them

The recent record heat, threat of drought, and the full onslaught of summer all have us thinking about our water here in Colorado.

Water is incredibly important to our state. In fact, inscribed inside Colorado’s state capitol building, it says:

Here is a land where life is written in water.” — Thomas Hornsby Ferril

And yet, as many Coloradans could tell you: we have a problem with our water resources. But what exactly is the problem? How did it start? How bad is it? And — the question of the century — how can we address it?

To answer all of these questions, we’re launching a blog series. In it, we’ll address what the issues are with our water and how we can solve them. To get started, let’s take a look at what the problems with water are in our state.

What is the problem?

Colorado’s population is increasing rapidly, and is projected to double from 5.4 million to over 10 million people by 2050. Our water resources are shrinking, and are predicted to keep decreasing due to the effects of climate change, which include more droughts and hotter temperatures.

By 2050, we’re predicted to have a shortage of half a million acre-feet per year. That’s enough water for 2.5 million families, or the amount of water in Lake Granby, the fourth-largest reservoir in Colorado.

We live in an arid state. Some of the things we love most about Colorado — our 300 days of sunshine, our burgeoning economic growth — are also what make it difficult for this place to sustain a rapidly growing population.

The South Platte River running through Denver. Photo by Kent Kenouse

The average rainfall across the state is just 17 inches per year, making it the 8th driest state in the country. Some parts of the state, like the San Luis Valley and some Western towns, are even considered deserts, qualifying with less than 9.75 inches of rain a year.

As author Marc Reisner, who wrote Cadillac Desert (the book Newsweek called “the definitive work on the West’s water crisis.”), put it in 1979:

Colorado, second only to California in the arid West in population, industry, and irrigated acreage, has available for its use just over one-tenth as much surface water. Between the demands of agriculture, population, industry, and environmentalists not to mention the potential explosion in energy development — there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around.”

How did our water problems start?

When Colorado was first being settled in the 19th century, rights to use water (now know legally as “water rights”) were handed out on a first-come-first-served basis to miners and farmers. The idea of conservation, such as leaving water in rivers or planning for the future, was not considered. In fact, people thought it was wasteful to allow rivers to run free. As ProPublica put it:

“The common element of [Western water laws] is the blunt ethos of the West: Water exists mainly in order to get used up, even if that means deepening the problems of neighboring states.”

Another challenge with our water system is the notion of “use it or lose it.” Our laws currently say that if a water right owner does not use his or her entire amount of water each year, he or she could lose ownership of that water in the future. For example, as farmer Bill Ketterhagen, near Gunnison, Colorado, explained to ProPublica: “When we have [water], we’ll use it. You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Now, with a surging population, limited habitat for fish and other river species, and increasing droughts, people are realizing that human use has profound environmental, economic and social impacts. Water left in our rivers can be more valuable than water removed.

How bad are our water issues?

The Animas River in 2015, orange from mining waste.

The short answer: pretty bad.

The more in-depth answer: our water system is broken. Here is a sampling of some of the big challenges facing Colorado right now:

  • We have thousands of old abandoned mines that pour pollution into our rivers and creeks at an alarming rate every day. For example, the Gold King Mine, made famous by the 2015 spill that turned the Animas River orange, still has neighboring mines that are leaking hundreds of gallons of mine waste per minute.
  • Because of climate change, Colorado is predicted to get hotter and drier in the next few decades. We’ll see more days with record-breaking heat, longer droughts, more wildfires, and more evaporation from our scarce water supplies.
  • In order to provide water to our cities and farms, our rivers are heavily managed, mainly through the use of dams, reservoirs, and water diversions. This infrastructure has allowed us to flourish in the dry Colorado environment, but many storage management practices are outdated and may not account for conservation and ecological water needs that provide long-term sustainability for rivers.
The Cache La Poudre River is Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River.
  • We have an alarmingly small number of protected rivers in Colorado. We only have one “Wild and Scenic” river, a nationally protected river that is “free-flowing” and has “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values.” This may be a surprise, as many Coloradans would agree that most of our rivers deserve protection.
  • There is a state-run program to come up with “stream management plans” for our rivers that critically need our help. The goal is to create plans for 80 percent of our rivers and streams, which will be in the thousands. So far, only one river has completed one of these plans.
  • While many Coloradans are concerned about these issues and the Colorado Water Plan sets forth a vision for how to deal with them, we lack funding to seriously resolve many of these issues.

How do Coloradans feel about their water resources?

Water is one of the most important conservation issues in Colorado, and has particular resonance with voters on the Western Slope. Voters believe that our rivers and streams are in trouble.

In fact, 71 percent of Colorado voters believe that low levels in our lakes and rivers are a serious concern. A huge majority — 76 percent — are concerned about pollution of our rivers, lakes, and streams. To solve our water issues, 77 percent think it would be better to use our existing water sources more wisely than to divert more rivers. And fully 93 percent of Coloradans are willing to cut back on their own household’s water use.

How do Colorado’s urban/rural dynamics play in?

In Colorado, most of the people live on the eastern half of the state, in population centers like Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and Aurora. At the same time, most of the water comes from snow and rain that falls in the western half of the state. Our 44 trans-mountain diversions (enormous pipes) pump water from where it falls to where people need it.

This dynamic links our state together through our water use. What happens in urban areas has a huge impact on the West Slope. Channeling water away from the western half of the state dries up agricultural land, reduces habitat along our rivers, and cuts into the amount of water we are required to send to other states.

Our recent Rivers Report Card measured the health of eight Colorado rivers. Most of our rivers have less water than they used to — but one river was much larger than it naturally would be. The South Platte River was once a seasonal stream, dry for several months each year. Now, it flows year-round due to water diverted from other rivers, which is used in cities and washed down the drain into the South Platte.

It is tempting for urban water users to look at the statistics of water use in Colorado and jump to conclusions. More than 80 percent of Colorado’s water is used for agriculture. However, water used in agriculture is not a “consumptive” use, as much of it soaks back into the ground and returns to the basin. Plus, agriculture is one of the state’s oldest institutions, and a large part of our economy. Its water use has been decreasing slightly for the past several decades in Colorado. But urban use, which includes everything from watering unnaturally green lawns to industrial use to drinking water, has been surging. Colorado’s expanding population is responsible for the water woes we are now facing, and it’s up to all of us to find ways to conserve.

How do we fix it?

While the problem is huge and progress will be slow, there are plenty of opportunities and innovative ideas that could majorly impact our water. Over the next few months, we’ll be releasing blogs that explain more about each of these solutions. But here are the basics. We need to:

  1. Provide greater protections for Colorado’s rivers by creating management plans for streams.
  2. Increase urban conservation and water savings, especially in new developments.
  3. Encourage flexibility for the agricultural industry to share water rights.
  4. Address our antiquated and non-existent laws governing the hardrock mining industry.
  5. Close the state’s water supply gap without diverting more water from our western slope.
  6. Protect more of our rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects free-flowing rivers from development that would change their nature.

Some argue that it will take a drastic drought to spur our state into action. We think that having a little bit of foresight should be enough. We can work together to turn these ideas into reality and protect Colorado’s water for the future.

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