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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.

Colorado's water shortages are already here and getting worse, according to updated state plan

The Colorado Water Plan originally passed in 2015, and was initially an effort by then-governor John Hickenlooper.
Alex Hager
The Colorado Water Plan originally passed in 2015, and was initially an effort by then-governor John Hickenlooper.

Colorado’s water shortages are not relegated to the distant future. Water supplies cannot meet current demands in many communities, and are only likely to worsen as climate change heats up and dries out the state’s cities and farms.

That message is front and center in the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s first draft of a comprehensive update to the Colorado Water Plan, originally passed in 2015. Its initial creation was spurred by then-governor John Hickenlooper.

The plan anticipates a supply-demand gap of 240,000 to 740,000 acre-feet for cities and industries by 2050. One acre-foot is enough to meet the annual water needs of about two Colorado households. For agricultural users, shortages are already a way of life. The plan projects that an existing shortfall of 2.6 million acre-feet for farmers and ranchers could increase to 3.5 million acre-feet by the middle of this century.

The plan is candid about the harsh effects of climate change, and the likelihood that Colorado’s water future will be shaped by warming and drying patterns. This includes acknowledgements of “aridification” – the idea that the West is not just experiencing the normal ebb and flow of drought, but instead becoming permanently drier. Climate scientists broadly agree that rising temperatures are driving a batch of changes that result in a shrinking water supply for much of the Southwest.

“We’re experiencing deep drought and aridity,” said Russ Sands, who leads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s water supply planning division. “These are not things that are in our control to change. But we can absolutely work together to mitigate the worst impacts.”

The plan lays out five hypothetical future scenarios, and three of them assume that conditions will be hotter and drier than the last century. Sands said at least one scenario is called “business as usual,” and presumes similar climate conditions to the 20th century.

“I think there would be some benefit in at least having one that was where we’re at today so we know what that delta is in the future,” Sands said.

The plan’s future assumptions underpin many of its recommendations and proposed tools to manage the scarcity. That includes its predictions about the future of “nonfunctional turf,” a category of grass that describes home lawns and other grassy areas that are primarily ornamental but require a lot of water to keep alive.

“Many of Colorado's current urban landscapes will be unsustainable in a warmer and drier climate,” the plan reads, before going on to advocate for wider implementation of less-thirsty plants that thrive in such a climate and only need to be watered one day a week or less. The plan hints at calling for fewer grassy lawns, but says that water should still be used for green spaces like parks, gardens and stream corridors that have health benefits for people and animals. It also argues that lawn removal mandates in places like Nevada and California would not fit Colorado’s climate.

The plan also suggests the state’s cities begin to better integrate land and water planning, though few communities have taken steps to do that.

Making changes to mitigate the worst of the state’s water shortfalls will be expensive. The plan calls for $20 billion in spending by 2050. That includes its support of constructing new dams and reservoirs, and enlarging existing ones. Conservation programs and environmental projects are also included in the hefty budget.

A lack of funding has dogged state water managers since the plan’s initial passage in 2015. State lawmakers’ willingness to appropriate funds for the plan has varied between budget cycles. A 2019 ballot measure to legalize sports gambling in the state was meant to deliver a steady stream of funding, but it too has struggled to meet projections.

Conservation programs in the state have led to modest reductions in per capita water use, the draft notes. Since 2008, per-person water use in cities has declined 5%. But that decline won’t come close to meeting increases in demands. Municipal water demand is projected to increase by 35% in one scenario, and up to 77% higher in another. Water demands are also likely to rise on Colorado’s farms as warming temperatures make crops thirstier.

All the increasing demand and lessened supply is likely to continue to drive up the price for water.

“Competition for scarce water supplies is driving up water costs and posing challenges to meeting future municipal, industrial, and agricultural water needs while protecting and enhancing the environmental and recreation opportunities,” the report notes.

As agricultural water use increasingly comes under fire, Colorado’s plan outlined the importance of farming and ranching to the state’s economy. Irrigated agriculture contributes $47 billion to the state’s economy each year. Agriculture remains the predominant water use in the state, consuming upwards of 75% of the state’s total water available. Shortages restrict the types of crops farmers can grow and the length of the growing season.

Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and former chairman of the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance, said the state was sufficiently transparent while formulating the water plan.

“I would certainly say that they made every attempt they could to get agriculture's viewpoint on what went into the plan,” he said.

The state also highlighted the fact that water-related recreation contributes $19 billion to Colorado’s economy each year. While the plan sets out to protect water for a wide variety of users, some say it isn’t doing enough to support recreation. That includes Alex Funk, who used to work for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We're just disappointed to see that there are very few detailed partner agency actions that really get to addressing how we support those water-based recreation values,” said Funk, who now serves as director of water resources with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. (Funk’s group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation which also funds a portion of KUNC’s Colorado River coverage). “Specifically, addressing things like chronically occurring low-flow and high water temperature conditions that are forcing the state and local communities to close rivers to public use.”

Funk gave positive reviews of the plan’s goals to better coordinate across different state agencies, noting that it provided new chances to get on the same page about funding for water projects.

But the plan did not do enough, he said, to plan for Colorado’s role in broader efforts to conserve water in the rapidly-shrinking Colorado River basin. This summer, the federal government is calling on states to find and save an unprecedented amount of water, and Colorado’s particular contributions to that effort have not yet been revealed.

“There's going to have to be some potentially faster response or potentially some thinking about how we make some of those cuts in the least painful way possible,” Funk said. “Right now, I'm not really seeing that in the draft plan or a recognition of a need or reality that that needs to take place.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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.
Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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