Population Growth and the Demand for Water on the Front Range

EarthzineIn-Depth, Original

Colorado is an arid state facing increasing pressures to its water supply from a rapidly booming population. The One Water One World Center and other local organizations are working to educate residents on the challenges of a growing demand for a precious and limited resource.

Annual U.S. precipitation from 1981-2010. Image Credit: NCAR/UCAR

Annual U.S. precipitation from 1981-2010. Image Credit: NCAR/UCAR

Population numbers are growing at a rapid rate in Colorado and the western U.S. Today, more than 75 million people live in the West, an increase of more than 3 million people since 2010. Colorado’s Front Range ‰- which extends from Fort Collins in the north to Pueblo in the south ‰- is an urban corridor of 5.4 million people who thrive on sunshine, outdoor recreation opportunities, and substantial water resources imported from the Western Slope of the state. More than 500,000 people have moved to Colorado since 2010.

Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, making it an important region for educational initiatives. Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver) realizes the impact and importance of informed Colorado residents to understand and address the growing water challenges. The One World One Water Center at MSU Denver was created in 2012 to provide water education and stewardship opportunities for students in all academic departments.

Today, an influx of new residents continues and provides great challenges for urban and agricultural water management in a semi-arid climate with only 12-16 inches of average precipitation per year. According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the recently released state water plan, Colorado’s population is anticipated to nearly double by 2050 ‰- from about 5.4 million in July 2016 to 9.2 million in 2050. This massive influx of new residents will require new water supplies provided by a variety of sources, such as transbasin diversions, new or expanded water storage projects, ‰’buy and dry,‰’ and water conservation.

Transbasin diversion (the transport of water from one river to another via mountain-bored tunnels) and new or expanded water storage projects are controversial, expensive, and environmentally challenging sources of water. However, in 2013, Denver Water, along with water and environmental groups on the Western Slope, finalized the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement

This landmark effort allows Denver Water to divert 10,000 acre-feet of additional water through a transbasin diversion from the West Slope, through the Moffat Tunnel, and into an expanded Gross Reservoir southwest of Boulder, Colorado. In return, Denver Water agreed to a variety of environmental and water conservation activities. While a wide range of groups on the Western Slope supported this compromise, others lamented the diversion of so much water from their rivers to the populous Front Range.

Buy and dry is another method of obtaining water supplies for urban areas. Irrigators in Colorado use about 80 percent of Colorado’s diverted water, but are under increasing pressure to sell valuable water rights to growing cities. Buy and dry requires that previously irrigated lands must remain non-irrigated (dry) after water rights are purchased and used by municipalities. This ongoing exchange of money for water rights is changing the landscape of the Front Range, and creates a host of issues. Re-vegetation challenges, declining local economies, loss of rural populations and local food production are all serious challenges.

An example of educational infographics being used for conservation. Image Credit: Colorado Water: Live Like You Love It.

An example of educational infographics being used for conservation. Image Credit: Colorado Water: Live Like You Love It.

In Colorado, water conservation is a widely accepted and adopted practice. Conserving water is something everyone can participate in within his or her home, workplace and yard. Water conservation can provide a significant amount of water to fulfill future needs. Many organizations have developed tips and tricks to encourage Coloradans to be water efficient. The Colorado Water: Live Like You Love It project provides suggestions for individuals to save water, from retrofitting faucets to creating a xeriscape garden. Personal conservation choices such as those outlined by Live Like You Love It are complemented by utility-enforced water restrictions, a regular occurrence during times of drought and in dry climates. Denver Water’s 2016 rules for outdoor water use include watering before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. and watering no more than three days a week.

Water conservation and water use efficiency are widely known and commonly used tactics; they can still be controversial. For example, rain barrels were recently legalized for use in Colorado. For many years, rain barrels were illegal because of the long-standing doctrine of prior appropriation and because citizens downstream of large cities such as Denver worried they would loose access to their water rights. After several years of work and research, a bill was passed to allow Coloradans to collect up to 110 gallons of water at any given time in rain barrels for landscape use.

This bill helps replace up to 1,300 gallons of municipal drinking water a month with harvested rainwater, educates consumers about Colorado water policy, and raises awareness of water conservation and efficient use. The bill has even encouraged a new thread of water education at MSU Denver. Students in the Industrial Design Department will have the opportunity to investigate problems and shortcomings with the current rain barrel design to develop a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing rain barrel.

Colorado is growing at a rapid rate, but some questions remain unanswered about how to prepare for the population surge on the Front Range. There have been many conversations brainstorming water shortage solutions between state agencies, nonprofits, and Colorado citizens, and there are many more conversations to come. Through all of the indecision and uncertainty, there are a few things Coloradans can know for sure: there will not be one solution to the problem; educating native and non-native Coloradans about the state’s water is critical; and water shortage issues are not unique. Although Colorado is a rare gem of a state, places all over the U.S. and globe are facing and have dealt with water shortage problems. There is a lot to learn from these other experiences and, hopefully, in the future Colorado can serve as the standard for effectively facing water shortage issues.

Tom Cech served as the director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, Colorado, for nearly 30 years before becoming the director of the One World One Water Center in 2011. He is originally from Nebraska with a bachelor’s in math education from Kearney State College and a master’s in community and regional planning from the University of Nebraska.

Nona Shipman moved from Virginia to Colorado in 2011 and quickly developed an interest in environmental education focused on water. Since then she has worked for several water organizations and volunteered with many more. Nona is currently completing a master’s in biology through the Denver Zoo/University of Miami, Ohio.