irrigation system in colorado

Water is the lifeblood of the West and since the first well was dug, it has been a scarce and valuable commodity and as such, the source of much conflict. Dipping into cliché, “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” Though that old saying certainly earned its keep, now as once-distant concerns over water supply have come into sharper focus, water managers have begun to take a less confrontational and more collaborative approach with an eye towards long-term sustainability.

Prior Appropriation

When the first white settlers arrived in Colorado, it quickly became obvious that the riparian water rights system commonly found in the water-abundant East, which allowed landowners to use water on or adjacent to their land, would not prove practical. The system that developed in its place is known as prior appropriation, which, put simply, means first in time, first in right. Under this doctrine, water users that divert water and put it to a “beneficial use” are deemed to have a water right, the priority of which is determined by the date it was first diverted and used. This system was designed to encourage water use to facilitate economic growth and the development of the burgeoning mining and agricultural industries.

Over the years, the doctrine of prior appropriation has evolved into a robust, deeply entrenched legal and regulatory regime that is in many ways the foundation upon which Colorado is built. It has thus far proved sufficiently malleable to adapt to a fast-changing world. However, as Colorado’s population continues to swell, placing greater strain on the state’s water resources, the outdated incentives and “use it or lose it” principles that underpin prior appropriation are beginning to show their age.

Increasing Demand

With more and more people flocking to Colorado’s urban areas, the nature of water demand in the state is changing. Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050, with the lion’s share of that growth occurring along the Front Range.

On average, Colorado consumes 5.3 million acre-feet of water per year. That water is often used multiple times thanks to agricultural return flows and creative water management. Agricultural interests are responsible for 89% of the consumed water in Colorado, compared to just 7% for municipalities. As a result, agricultural water rights have been a popular target for municipal water suppliers. The practice of acquiring these water rights and converting them from agricultural to municipal use, otherwise known as “buy and dry,” is increasingly controversial. There are reasons ranging from the concrete (agriculture contributes $41 billion annually to the Colorado economy) to the abstract (agriculture is an essential component of rural Colorado’s culture) why eliminating production on large swaths of Colorado farm and ranch land is bad for the future of the state.

All together, these issues necessitate creative approaches to meeting the increasing demand for water. Those tasked with supplying water to the ever-thirstier metropolitan areas are shifting away from what has historically been a zero-sum approach and beginning to focus more on collaborative partnerships.

Colorado State Water Plan

In 2013, recognizing the need for a coherent long-term strategy for sustainable water supply, Governor John Hickenlooper ordered the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop a Colorado State Water Plan. The CWCB worked with representatives from the nine major river basins across Colorado to develop a blueprint for water management that focuses on economic growth (both urban and rural), efficient use of land for water infrastructure, and a healthy environment. Though the State Water Plan doesn’t carry any force of law, it does outline a “critical action plan” that earned praise from stakeholders as varied as Denver Water and Trout Unlimited. That plan provides goalposts and implementation guidelines for new water projects and policies aimed at reducing the water supply and demand gap. It places particular emphasis on increasing flexibility throughout the system to encourage more creative and collaborative solutions.

Below are two examples of projects, one in progress and one proposed, that embody the type of cooperative approach that will be necessary to ensure a sustainable water future.


The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) Partnership is a regional water supply project that includes many of the largest water suppliers along the Front Range, including Denver Water, Aurora Water, and South Metro Water Supply Authority. At its core, WISE revolves around the partnering entities agreeing to share infrastructure capacity and water supplies in a way that significantly reduces waste and maximizes efficiency. The agreement is an innovative partnership that will maximize the use and value of existing water assets and reduce regional overreliance on groundwater. It will also minimize the need to purchase agricultural water rights, helping to preserve rural communities in Colorado.

The WISE partners expect to gain a number of benefits from engagement, including increased resiliency across their systems, maximum utilization of existing resources, and reduced economic friction as a result of fewer legal and water rights disputes between the parties. The agreement is demonstrative of the shift in thinking in recent years as water managers begin to view other stakeholders throughout the water supply system as potential collaborators rather than competitors.


Another example of system-wide collaboration is a water storage project proposed by the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group (SPROWG), which includes, among others, Northern Water, Denver Water, and Aurora Water. The proposed project would include a total of 175,000 acre-feet of storage in multiple locations along the South Platte, enabling water users in the South Platte River system to capture more water before it leaves the state. It would also include a pump and pipeline system to enable water reuse.

According to Jim Yahn, who represents the South Platte Basin before the CWCB, the project would benefit water providers (and ultimately consumers) all along the Front Range by “maximizing use and effectiveness of available water on the South Platte and minimizing traditional ‘buy and dry.’” Importantly, the project would also reduce the need for more transmountain diversions, a controversial practice whereby water from the West Slope is pumped below the Continental Divide for use in the Front Range. The fact that SPROWG even exists is a testament to the growing faith in collaborative water management practices.

A New Era

Securing a sustainable water future is a necessity for Colorado to maintain its current economic growth trajectory. As more and more Coloradans and new Colorado residents move to the Front Range and other population centers, water suppliers need to think more creatively about how to manage the state’s water resources. The result has been a significant and positive shift towards more collaborative approaches that emphasize system-wide efficiency. Though these efforts remain in their infancy, the early returns suggest water may no longer be for fighting.

Read the other installments in this population growth series that dive deeper into the issues of transportationaffordable housing, and the anti-growth initiative.