We all know water is a crucial resource essential for life on earth and Colorado. But have you ever wondered where your water comes from? Are you curious if you should be concerned about the water levels due to scarcity or global warming? The issue of water in Colorado is complex and unique to the state. Here, water is considered as precious as gold.
Where your water comes from
50% of Denver’s drinking water comes from Colorado River tributaries and the rest from the South Platte River Basin. Denverwater.org reports that “Denver Water, which provides water to 1.5 million people across the metro area, relies on a system that collects rain and snow from across 4,000 square miles of mountains and foothills west of Denver.” And that’s just referring to where Denver’s metro area water comes from.
The networks that direct the water flow into treatment facilities are complex and impressive. Most of the precipitation falls just west of the Continental Divide. As a result, that’s where the network of channels, pipelines, and tunnels are located to collect the water. Which then gets conveyed down to treatment facilities and storage. The water is stored in reservoirs around the state, with the largest being Dillon Reservoir.
Who regulates Colorado’s water supply?
Have you ever wondered who regulates the water districts in Colorado? Several agencies manage this complex process beginning with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to colorado.gov, the DNR are “more involved with water quantity management, while the agencies associated with the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) are more involved with water quality management.”
Colorado Water Conservation Board
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is “responsible for state water policy and planning” and is operated by a 15-member team. Planning involves protection of the water supply, flow, natural water reserves, the finances of water planning, drought, and flood control, among other things.
Snowmelt and snowpack
Wikipedia defines snowpack as “layers of snow that accumulate in geographic regions and high elevations where the climate includes cold weather for extended periods during the year.” Eventually, snowpack becomes snowmelt, an essential and life-giving resource for millions of people.
As reported by The Colorado Sun, “Colorado’s snowpack acts like a drip irrigation system,” and “as spring brings warming temperatures, snow slowly and steadily melts, first saturating the dry ground, then flowing through rivers and streams to both human and ecological uses.”
Snowmelt is so crucial to the state because it’s the primary source of water and streamflow in western North America. Believe it or not, 1 billion people globally can benefit. They go on to explain that “In the West, snowy mountains act like water towers.”
Water is reserved “up high until it melts, making it available to lower elevations that need it during the summer.” Because of climate change, snow is melting earlier and earlier. This means there are increasingly lower amounts of runoff, melt, and therefore water during the dry season.
In fact, colorado.edu reveals that “This is a big concern for water resource management and drought prediction in the West, which depends heavily on late winter snowpack levels in March and April. This shift in water delivery timing could also affect wildfire seasons and agricultural irrigation needs”. As the snow melts too early in the winter months, the soil remains wet, and flash floods become more likely. Particularly because the ground cannot soak up the water during spring rains.
What are water rights, and who owns them?
‘Who owns water rights in Colorado?’ you may ask. Water is a public resource in Colorado, and water rights mean the owner is legally authorized to use a portion of a particular water supply or source. Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Knowledge page states that water rights owners even have permission to “build facilities on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use.”
Watercolorado.com further clarifies that “The right to use surface and groundwater in Colorado has many of the attributes of private ownership of real property.” Because of this fact, “Individuals and organizations in Colorado are allowed to buy, sell, and even rent water rights if the water will be put to beneficial use.”
Colorado Division of Water Resources
If you’re seeking to apply for a water right, you must file that request with the water court. Yes, that’s a thing. These water courts deal exclusively with water-related issues.
But more specifically, the Division of Water Resources is the agency that oversees the administering of water rights and well permits in Colorado. At a broader level, they represent Colorado in the following:
- Maintain numerous databases of Colorado water information
- Interstate water compact proceedings
- Monitor streamflow and water use
- Approve construction and repair of dams
- Performs dam safety inspections
- Issue licenses for well drillers
- Assures the safe and proper construction of water wells
If you’re thinking about installing or drilling a well on your property, you must first apply for a permit with the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
In addition, you’d need to check with your local building department to make sure you follow any guidelines or regulations. Since water’s such a precious resource, higher water laws and restrictions exist in Colorado and the West compared to other states.
Despite all of the work, care, and planning that the agencies we’ve discussed here have put into collecting, treating, and storing water for residents’ consumption, we are seeing the first-ever water shortage in our state. This means mandatory water cuts in some states and Mexico in 2022.”
Since the Lake Mead reservoir stores water for Arizona, California, and Nevada, the water cuts will most likely be isolated to those states, not necessarily affecting Colorado residents.
Water levels for the Colorado River are low and dropping faster than initially anticipated. Thankfully, organizations like the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition, and the Colorado River District, to name a few, are leading the charge to change the course of the future. They mobilize communities across Colorado to invest time, money, and energy into the well-being of state and private lands. They plan and implement river improvements, recovery programs, and forest management to reduce potential wildfire occurrences throughout the state.
Water districts and data
There are far too many water districts to name here. So it goes to show just how broad the effort is to keep water flowing through your tap. For a complete list of Colorado water districts, check out the locations and contact information listed on the Colorado Water Congress web page.
Did you know you can view data that updates every 15-60 minutes that track each reservoir’s water levels? If you’re ever curious about where you can check current data for streamflow, precipitation, and reservoir water levels, check out the USGS National Water Dashboard.
What the future holds
There are over 4,000 lakes and reservoirs, 15 dams along the Colorado River, and hundreds of tributaries spread out over Colorado. Unfortunately, this does not mean there’s an unlimited supply of water. Residents of this state should be aware of where their water comes from and how precious a resource it is. Want to join in on efforts to create solutions to help save and retain more water for the future?
Check out the resources listed in this article if you want more information so you can join the cause. There are so many programs in your community where you can help create a better future. It’s easy to take our water for granted when it seems so magically endless when we turn on our faucets. The future of our state’s water supply is going to become more of a concern with each passing year. All due to the effects of global warming impacting the delicate balance of supply.
There’s no better time than the present to see what you can do for your community. If you’re new to Colorado and want to learn more about unique facts and history about the state, check out our learning center article about what 5280 means to Colorado.