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Colorado's Water: Supply and Demand

Posted: 08/15/2007
by Nathan Fey

Colorado is a headwaters state, straddling the Continental divide. All water in Colorado, both surface and ground, is generated by precipitation in the form of rain or snow. There are no rivers (aside from 50 miles of the Green River through Lodore Canyon) that flow into Colorado, while the Rio Grande, the Arkansas River, and the Colorado River all have their headwaters in the State. Water generated in Colorado’s high mountains, travels through 17 central and western states and Mexico.

Colorado generates roughly 95 million-acre feet (MAF) of water on average annually from precipitation. While most of this water is absorbed into the states millions of acres of forest and rangelands, some 16 MAF finds its way into Colorado’s creeks and rivers.

6 million-acre feet of water is put to use meeting the needs of Colorado’s 4.6 million people. On average, 80% of water used in the state is diverted directly out of our rivers. The remaining 20% is pulled from groundwater and aquifers. Of the water Coloradoans use, 86% of is used to meet agricultural needs. Less than 7% is used to meet municipal demands, 2% for industrial needs, 2% to recharge groundwater and aquifers, and 3% for environmental and recreational needs.

As a headwaters state, two-thirds of the surface water generated on average in Colorado is legally obligated to downstream users. 8.8 MAF of water flows to states west of the Continental Divide, including Utah, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. Colorado supplies another 1.4 MAF of water to states on the Atlantic side of the Divide, including Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Colorado’s water supply is limited by fluctuating precipitation levels.  Drought cycles are a common characteristic of our semi-arid climate.  In the drought of 2002, Colorado generated roughly 4 MAF of surface water.  Municipal water providers across the state were forced to implement restrictions on water use, and there was concern about Colorado’s ability to supply downstream states with their water requirements.  To meet demand, an additional 6maf of water was withdrawn from reservoirs and storage systems, which have yet to fully recover. Agriculture, recreation, municipalities, and the environment suffered serious hardship during one of the most serious droughts in Colorado’s history. Colorado’s obligations to provide water to downstream users via interstate compacts, international treaties, and court ordered apportionment, continues regardless of drought conditions or increasing demands in the headwaters.

Colorado expects another 2.8 million people in the state by 2030, placing more demand on water supplies, more demand than can be met today. The Colorado Water Conservation Board reported in the State Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) that Colorado needs an additional 630,000 AF of water supplies to meet these new municipal demands. Conservation will play a critical role in stretching existing supplies, but cannot meet all the requirements alone.  To meet the increase in demand, Colorado is planning for new reservoirs and dams, expanding existing storage projects, and proposing inter-basin transfers and agricultural withdrawals.

In 2005 the Colorado Legislature created the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and nine roundtables across the state to further evaluate statewide water supply and demand at the basin level. The IBCC organizes to negotiate diverting water between basins. These Basin Roundtables are charged with refining the SWSI 1 report by quantifying consumptive and non-consumptive water needs and identifying water projects scoped to meet projected future demands. In Colorado consumptive water use includes all withdrawals from surface or ground water supplies to be put to beneficial use, including agricultural, municipal, and industrial needs.  Non-consumptive uses include recreational and environmental needs, including Instream flow rights, Recreational In-channel Diversions, and needs for threatened or endangered fish and riparian life.

Critical decisions will be made within these nine roundtables that will determine whether many rivers and streams in Colorado have sufficient flows for paddling and other river recreation, fish, wildlife, local economic benefits, and municipal needs. Currently the paddling community is unrepresented or underrepresented on these roundtables.

The Basin Roundtables and the IBCC present any proposed water project in the state to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Each basin roundtable screens for projects or programs that benefit multiple users, and balance competing needs of a shared water source.  It is critical that we protect any potential impact to existing uses of recreational or environmental water, in addition to advocating for recreational and environmental needs in proposed future water developments. American Whitewater is seeking paddlers willing to thoughtfully represent the paddling community and AW on these roundtables. This is a critical time for river recreationists and whitewater boaters to participate in Colorado’s water supply planning, one in which we can create lasting environmental protections for the 2030 horizon.

Basin Roundtable Contact Information
Basin Contact Meeting Location Meeting Schedule
Arkansas Alan Hamel
Occhiato University Center, E. Ballroom
200 Bonforte Ave.
Pueblo, CO
2nd Wednesday
Each Month
Colorado Dave Merritt
Glenwood Springs Community Center
100 Wolfson Road
Glenwood Springs, CO
4th Wednesday
Each Month
Denver Metro Doug Scott
No Set Location 2nd Wednesday
Each Month
Gunnison Michele Pierce
Holiday Inn Express
1391 S. Townsend Ave.
Montrose, CO
1st Monday
Each Month
North Platte Kent Crowder
US Forest Service
100 Main St.
Walden, CO
No Set Schedule
Rio Grande Mike Gibson
Adams State College
Student Union
Alamosa, CO
2nd Tuesday
Each Month
South Platte Bill Jerke
SW Weld County Service Center
I-25 and Hwy 119
Longmont, CO
2nd Tuesday
Each Month
Yampa/White Tom Sharp
No Set Location 3rd Wednesday
Every 3rd Month
Dolores/ San Juan/
San Miguel
Steve Harris
No Set Location No Set Schedule

To volunteer, contact:

Nathan Fey
Colorado Stewardship Director
Colorado Stewardship Director
Nathan Fey
1601 Longs Peak Ave.
Longmont, CO 80501
Phone: 303-859-8601

Associated Projects

Colorado SWSI (CO)
Colorado's Statewide Water Supply Initiative may very well determine the fate of Colorado's whitewater rivers by dictating how much water can be removed from rivers to serve a growing population.