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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Price Of Key Northern Colorado Water Supply Reaches New Peak

Cassandra Turner
Creative Commons
Horsetooth Reservoir outside Fort Collins, Colorado is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

The price of water within northern Colorado’s largest reservoir system is the highest it’s ever been.

Units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson (CBT) project have sold for $30,000 and higher in 2018, a new benchmark for the water supply project that began operations in 1957.

“We’ve roughly doubled in the last five years in terms of that cost,” says Brian Werner, a spokesman for Northern Water, which oversees the CBT project. “It’s the development going on; it’s the competition for water supply.”

The project’s water is primarily used by farmers, cities and industry in northern Colorado. It includes the region’s largest reservoirs: Lake Granby, Horsetooth Reservoir, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Boulder Reservoir, and Carter Lake. CBT water is used on more than 640,000 acres of irrigated farmland and flows to nearly a million people in eight counties, including some of the fastest-growing communities in the Rocky Mountain region.

The project acts as a self-contained water market. Users can sell their units to anyone within Northern Water’s service area. Transactions involve a willing buyer and seller. The seller is often a farmer, or the heir to an agricultural operation. The buyer could be a fast-growing community like Windsor, Severance, Dacono, Firestone or a developer. These types of transactions have been dubbed “buy and dry,” as water moves from irrigated farm land to municipalities to supplement urban and suburban growth, and are a source of both angst and opportunity for some rural Colorado farm families.

The CBT was originally built to deliver irrigation water to farmers, but after decades of sales of agricultural water, cities own about 70 percent of its water.

“It’s not Farmer Jones who can afford $30,000 a unit CBT water,” Werner says. “It’s developers. It’s people who are developing infrastructure in cities who have to bring water to the table.”

Price fluctuations have been common in the CBT water market since the 1990s, Werner says. In 1990 a unit of water sold for $1,500. In 2010 the same amount of water was priced at $7,000. By 2015, units sold for $25,659.

The actual amount of water in a unit varies year to year depending on snowpack and water levels in the system’s reservoirs. In an average year, one unit has enough water to supply two average northern Colorado households for one year.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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