The slow-motion calamity unfolding on the Colorado River has generated headlines for several years.
Climate change had been predicted in studies to rob the West of crucial snowpack and now it was happening in real life. Year after year, swaths of the region fell into serious stages of drought.
The river, an engine of the U.S. economy providing 40 million people with water in metropolitan areas including Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, required emergency releases of water from reservoirs in Colorado, New Mexico and on the Utah-Wyoming border to prevent Lake Powell, one of two major reservoirs on the Colorado River, from getting too low to function as designed.
The releases held Lake Powell over through summer, but spring runoff from the high peaks in Colorado and three neighboring Upper Basin states this year fell well short of what’s needed to stop the reservoir’s long-term decline.
Concerns about the Colorado River have only grown as the falling water exposes more than the bleached rock of Lake Powell’s walls.
It’s raising a feeling of alarm that the current drought is the tipping point in the broader aridification of the southern Rocky Mountains due to climate change, and that the availability of water in the semi-arid climate will grow increasingly tenuous unless broad changes to water use and conservation are made.
It’s been known for a long time the Colorado River lacks enough water to support the region’s growing use, said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the region’s biggest water utility.
“This has been a 20-year train that we’ve known is coming, and now it’s about to hit us,” Lochhead said. “It’s something all of us in the West need to be worried about.”
The need to change the West’s relationship with water — to really treat it as a scarce resource in community planning and in state policies — has been gospel among water planners and academics for years. Experts say the moment water use will have to actually change is now at hand, with broad ramifications for business and communities across the state.
Seven states that are part of the century-old Colorado River agreement, along with the federal government, set a drought response in motion in 2019.
It kept water flowing from lakes Powell and Mead, which store water needed by Southern California, Arizona, Mexico and parts of New Mexico and Nevada, but the releases haven’t been enough.
On June 14, Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the federal Department of Reclamation, told a U.S. Senate committee that water use from the Colorado River would have to be cut by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in 2023.
The figures amount to reducing actual water use from the river by between 16% and 33%.
The upper end of those cuts would mean eliminating more water use than four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — say they collectively drew from the Colorado River in 2021.
The cuts would follow years in which drought has already been shrinking the amount of water available across the West.
Denver Water, the city utility that supplies Denver and some surrounding suburbs, draws half its supply from the Colorado River and its alpine tributaries, which start in the peaks north of Winter Park.
Like others who watch the situation on the Colorado River, Lochhead says a mindset of scarcity needs to replace attitudes that water is abundant. Not just about Colorado River water, but all water in the region.
Climate change is making a drier climate the reality more broadly, setting up an increasing number of challenges about water use in Colorado from other states and from within the state.
States that are part of the Colorado River Compact, written in 1922 at the end of a historically wet stretch in climate history, have been relying on the allocation of 15 million acre-feet of water from the river annually when the river has been yielding only about 12 million acre-feet.
An estimated 40 million people use the river’s water, including the metropolitan areas of Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Communities in California and Arizona have been drawing more water from the river’s reservoirs than can be replenished by spring runoff in the Rocky Mountains to the north, where warming temperatures are evaporating snow melt and leaving communities in Colorado and surrounding states with less.
“We continue to operate in a deficit as far as water demand compared to what the river produces,” Lochhead said.
Releases from federally managed reservoirs will help get communities downstream through the parched spring, but with runoff season again disappointing, it appears big changes to water use in the West are imminent.
Denver Water is among the most senior water rights users on the Colorado River, meaning its claims to Colorado River water are among the most secure.
Its annual draw of 140,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River and its tributaries is minuscule compared to the amounts being discussed by the compact states overall, but the stakes are still significant for a growing city planning resources for 50 years in the future, Lochhead said.
Many communities on the northern edge of the Denver metro area and up Colorado’s Front Range rely on the Colorado River for at least a portion of their water supply, some of which may not be as well positioned if cutbacks to Colorado River use are ordered.
Reservoir in the sky
Colorado, under an agreement it struck in 1948 with three other Upper Basin states, is entitled to 3.88 million acre-feet of river water annually, or just over 25% of the total allocation of the river.
Unlike southern California or Arizona, which call upon federally managed reservoirs for Colorado River water, Colorado and other Upper Basin users take their deliveries directly from mountain snowfields.
If the snowpack doesn’t provide the water, it isn’t there to use. There’s no reservoir upstream from which Colorado can seek more water.
Mountain snowpack is becoming less reliable. In 2021, the snow depth reached 88% of average but runoff into the rivers reached only 40% of normal due to evaporation and absorption into a landscape researchers say has been made thirstier by warming temperatures.
The four Upper Basin states calculate they drew less from the river basin in 2021 because of dry conditions, reducing their use to 3.5 million acre-feet from the 4.6 million that has been the recent norm, Lochhead said.
That’s a 24% reduction that follows years in which water users in the Upper Basin were already using far less than the 7.5 million acre-feet they’re allocated under the compact.
The implication is that, as the federal government negotiates more sweeping Colorado River drought responses, the Lower Basin states may have to make the bigger, near-term cuts because they’ve been using more than the compact allocates to them. That overuse has been rapidly drawing down the stored water in lakes Powell and Mead and other upstream reservoirs that are jointly managed as the Colorado River Storage Project.
In search of Winston Churchill
The drier climate requires difficult decisions to be made about water use that have long been put off for the future, says James Eklund, a Denver water lawyer at Sherman & Howard who created the first Colorado Water Plan after being recruited to the task and named head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Questions about land use, crop selection and infrastructure investment can be sorted out among water users and across state lines to make use more efficient without there being big losers or communities forced to change their way of life, Eklund says. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“We’ve always had enough water in the system to avoid the argument, so we’ve just never had it,” Eklund said. “We don’t have that luxury anymore.”
The situation requires a Winston Churchill-type leader to rally the public behind policies that make sense, yet no one is even making most people aware that consequential choices need to be made about water, he said. Instead, Colorado seems to be “whistling past the graveyard” and relying on continuing to be lucky with weather, he said.
Eklund is critical that Gov. Jared Polis’ administration and the rest of Colorado’s political leadership aren’t being more vocal and ambitious about water conservation, raising awareness about what he sees as the rising vulnerabilities of the region’s water supplies.
“We’ve got to act like the house is on fire,” Eklund said. “Aridification is an existential threat, and we need to respond accordingly.”
As Colorado River commissioner for three years starting in 2016, Eklund lobbied to create a system of paying farmers to forgo using their water rights and to allow that water to be stored in Lake Powell for use by downstream states in future years.
The details of the “demand management” system, sometimes called “water banking,” haven’t been sorted out and sources of funding haven’t materialized so, three years later, no water has been set aside.
Banked water in Lake Powell could’ve been a valuable resource and a bargaining chip in regional discussions about cuts on the Colorado River, Eklund said.
The idea has been met with suspicion about the potential for investors profiting off water in Colorado at the expense of farmers and ranchers. Eklund, whose family has ranched for generations near Grand Junction, also has represented investors buying agricultural land with water rights in the area.
Eklund gets that people are hesitant, but argues that demand management and other strategies need to be tried and industry included in the search for solutions to water scarcity.
The White House allocated billions in funding for water-related infrastructure in the West, yet there’s been no leadership at the state level to claim money for specific Colorado programs, Eklund said.
Meanwhile, Nebraska is using a century-old agreement with Colorado about water allocations on the South Platte River as a way of claiming the right to divert some water out of the river in far eastern Colorado and get its state legislature to pursue funding for building a canal that would channel water to store in Nebraska somewhere.
Colorado officials scratch their heads about the logic of the proposal. Colorado has always left more in the South Platte at the state line than is required under the 1923 compact between the states, they say. No one has publicly identified a way the proposal would interfere with major South Platte River users, but Nebraska’s accompanying statements of concern about Colorado’s growing water use along the South Platte raises the possibility Nebraska’s project could lead to an interstate court fight if there isn’t enough water to go around.
On the Colorado River, the message that Upper Basin states took cuts directly in the form of reduced runoff amounts to a “we gave at the office” argument that could be challenged by water users in California and Arizona who feel they have a lot to lose in reallocating water in the Colorado River, Eklund said.
When powerful state interests collide, they’re sorted out by the Supreme Court decisions or federal agencies.
The outcome isn’t predictable, especially when teams of lawyers get involved, Eklund said.
Having ambitious and visible water conservation programs at the state level can show water is not being wasted and help pull sentiment in Colorado’s favor, he said, but the state currently has little to point at in any legal battle.
“We are not positioning ourselves well for that eventuality,” Eklund said.
Whether or not immediate reductions are ordered in the next couple years on the Colorado River — what’s called “curtailment” under the compact — water experts expect to see big changes to how water is used in the West.
What those changes look like needs to be figured out, they say.
Lochhead notes that 80% of the water used from the river in the Upper Basin states goes to agriculture, making it an obvious place to look. Discussions about reducing the planting of some water-intensive crops and otherwise changing some farming practices in the interior West will be on the table, he predicts.
There’s a political reluctance to tell farmers and ranchers what to do, especially when it comes to water, but the drought and a future of increasing scarcity is making addressing agricultural water necessary, Lochhead said.
“We can’t be in the position of evacuating cities,” he said.
Water in Colorado is governed by a policy of “prior appropriation,” a legal principle that means the user who establishes beneficial use of water from a river has the right to keep using that amount of water regardless of later users that emerge upstream or downstream.
This “first in time, first in right” principle sounds simple, but the pecking order it creates gets complicated. It also leaves more junior water rights often held by new communities, like suburban towns and water districts, more vulnerable to having their access to water limited or challenged in dry times.
Other relatively junior water uses — snowmaking at ski resorts, outdoor water parks or watering of golf courses — could be among the users sent to the back of the line and curtailed if water grows scarce enough.
Colorado’s state government, municipalities, the business community and others should all be preparing for a drier future now before potential legal threats emerge, said Bart Miller, director of the healthy rivers program at Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based natural resources and environmental advocacy group.
Legal experts sound confident that Colorado water users would fare well if something like curtailment is ordered on the Colorado River. But once lawyers are arguing, there’s no guarantee.
“Gambling on the outcome of those things isn’t where we want to be,” Miller said. “We don’t want to go to that rough edge where we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Big public conversations about water planning and wise water use practices would help prevent having future court cases or multistate negotiations create vulnerabilities to water shortages, he said.
There’s a big role for Colorado’s business community to play in policy discussions, but it would be a mistake to think only about the economic interests of water-intensive industries, land development and farming, Miller says.
The quality of life that makes Colorado a workforce recruiting magnet depends on having healthy river basins for recreation and adequate water for communities, Miller said.
Outdoor recreation, such as hiking, camping, rafting, skiing and fishing, contributed $10.6 billion to the state’s economy in 2020, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit Businesses for Water Stewardship.
That’s reason to consider water conservation to be part of economic development, and for businesses to be concerned about a drier climate, he said.
Cities and businesses are fully capable of reducing water use while maintaining a comfortable and desirable lifestyle, but it’s going to take raising public awareness, Miller said.
“There needs to be a more concerted and widespread effort, because we’re running out of time,” he said.
There’s a reason state officials aren’t hitting the panic button over water yet.
That’s because Colorado isn’t using all the water that is allocated to it under the Colorado River compact now, and it’s meeting all of its obligations under state compacts involving other rivers.
The states in the Colorado River compact have mostly worked well together on water planning in recent years, most recently striking agreements to release 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River at the Wyoming-Utah border to bolster supplies in Lake Powell farther south while leaving a similar amount in the reservoir undrawn by the Lower Basin states. The 980,000 acre-feet “added” in Powell kept the crucial reservoir full enough through next runoff season.
Discussions about bigger cuts and longer-term changes to water use are starting.
Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell is in regular conversations with her counterparts in other states and with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Despite the drama of what’s happening to the river system, the negotiations remain collaborative, said Sarah Leonard, spokeswoman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Everyone involved knows that that’s the only way it’s going to work,” Leonard said.
Mitchell will be in talks about drought response on the Colorado River that are expected to culminate in August.
Prior to the June 14 announcement about seeking cuts of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, state officials weren’t expecting calls for curtailment of Colorado River water use in Colorado or other Upper Basin states.
Forecasts suggest that curtailment of Colorado River use in the Upper Basin states isn’t likely to be justified before 2027, said Kevin Rein, state water engineer for Colorado.
Even so, the state has been taking steps to protect existing water uses.
Colorado has begun pushing for gauges to be installed and measure water withdrawals from the White, Yampa and North Platte rivers.
Colorado’s Division of Water Resources is encouraging measurement so there’s a record when the day comes to defend Colorado’s water use to states downstream.
“We want good, hard data,” Rein said.
Gauges have measured withdrawals for decades on the South Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado’s other “overallocated” rivers.
Larger populations and local demand for water can outstrip what’s flowing between the riverbanks, leading to disputes and the need to ensure nobody’s taking more water out than they should.
Placing gauges on rivers that haven’t historically been measured has caused some grumbling among the largely agricultural water users used to the old way of doing things.
Measurement supports the state’s system of appropriating water, which has shown itself to work well and handle times of low river flows, Rein said.
That system is ultimately going to protect Colorado water users, he said.
Rein will continue to encourage water users in the state to put to beneficial use every drop of water they have a legal right to even as competition over water increases.
“We do have a compact,” he said, “and there’s a reason we have a compact.”
More people, less water
Colorado was the leader among Western states in adopting a plan for water use that took warming temperatures, climate change and the trend of aridification into account.
The Colorado Water Plan, first unveiled in 2015, is being updated this year. The update, a draft of which was due to be released for 90 days of public input on June 30, will highlight drought resiliency strategies that can be used to reduce water use.
Other steps toward water conservation are being taken, too.
The Colorado Legislature started a fund for grants that water utilities can tap to finance the replacement of grass outside homes and businesses, a program expected to attract more businesses than homeowners looking to forego the expense and water use of irrigating grass.
Outdoor water use accounts for half of the typical single-family home’s consumption.
Aurora, the state’s third-largest city, will begin considering in mid-July a proposed city water conservation policy of limiting new homes to small grass lawns in their back yards and banning future golf courses.
Water officials in Aurora say they know other local governments are watching and are likely to propose similar lawn-size limits as a water conservation measure.
In Denver, water users have generally become conscious of conservation since a severe drought in 2002 caused Denver to enforce strict outside watering limits — the only time it has done so, said Greg Fisher, Denver Water’s manager for demand planning and efficiency.
A decade ago, seeing long-term supplies looking more uncertain, it began modeling climate change’s effect on water availability for Denver, Fisher said.
The modeling showed a significant drying taking hold in 40 years, he said. The predictions were mostly accurate about what would happen, but not when.
“Those predictions, they’re already coming true,” Fisher said. “When you look at the data, it’s happening now. It’s already hitting our system.”
The good news is that many of Denver Water’s users are conscious of the change.
The utility sees the amount of water used around Denver plummet for days after a rain storm, showing that people are proactively turning off automated sprinkler systems on days watering is not needed, he said.
A lot of new development in the city has been in high-rise apartments and condos and other urban development without water-intensive lawns.
Indoor water use has been coming down, too, thanks to advances in low-flow toilets that have become widespread and work effectively using a gallon or less, and because new clothes washing machines use 15 gallons per load instead of the 40 gallons needed by older models, Fisher said.
Such conservation adds up to major water savings.
Denver Water sells the same amount of water to its customers as it did 50 years ago, in the mid-1970s, despite having added 500,000 more residents and a similar number of new jobs, Fisher said.
That kind of conservation is like adding a large new reservoir or finding a new water source, but without having to build a dam or take water out of a river system, Fisher said.
Cutting back on the need for outdoor irrigation at all is the next major strategy Denver plans to adopt in response to the drying climate.
Denver Water is looking at how xeriscaping and planting drought-tolerant species can provide the mental and aesthetic benefits of greenery and shade foliage in the city while still slashing water use, Fisher said.
“As water becomes more scarce, snowpack is reduced and competition for water gets more intense, we really need to see our landscapes do more,” he said.
Over time, the water savings from better-performing landscapes and other conservation measures will keep Denver from needing to draw more out of rivers.
Water reuse will have to become commonplace too, Fisher predicts.
Reused water, or “gray water,” is used for outdoor irrigation in places around the metro area, notably some large parks in Aurora.
Denver Water’s headquarters south of downtown reuses water from toilets and sinks in the building as irrigation for the landscaping outside. It’s a demonstration of what can be done with reuse.
It’s not easy getting permits for those kinds of nonpotable reuses of water, and policymakers are trying to change that, Fisher said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is writing rules allowing the reuse of water for drinking water for the first time.
State laws now are designed to protect water rights holders and prioritize returning water to watersheds for users downstream.
Denver Water can’t do large-scale reuse of water it takes from the South Platte River. Water that is pulled from the Colorado River, on the other side of the Continental Divide, however, can legally be reused to destruction because it’s water drawn from another basin and isn’t expected downstream.
Such complexities bedevil water policy in the state.
Understanding the impact of intertwining of regional, state and local water rules is like peeling away layers of an onion, says Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado, a nonprofit created by the state legislature after the 2002 drought.
The organization’s mission is to let the public know more about water resources and issues.
The shrinking of Lake Powell, the threats to the Colorado River and recent catastrophic wildfires have underscored the West’s intensifying drought, making regular news headlines and drawing wider interest to water in the state, Poppleton said.
“It’s really caught people’s attention here,” she said, “but people don’t really know what they can do about it.”
Greg Avery covers energy, aerospace, manufacturing, agriculture and the food production industry for Denver Business Journal and compiles the weekly “Energy Inc.” email newsletter.