New Report: Water and Growth in Colorado


by Doug Kinney, Natural Resources Law Center


The Natural Resources Law Center announces publication of Water and Growth in Colorado: A Review of Legal and Policy Issues. Based on approximately 70 interviews with a “who’s who” of Colorado water leaders as well as a review of recent water studies and legal documents, Water and Growth in Colorado describes existing water problems and potential solutions. While many of the issues identified are not the direct result of population growth, the rapid increase in municipal water demands has brought a greater sense of urgency to almost all facets of Colorado water development and management.

Recent census figures rank Colorado as the nation’s third fastest growing state by percent, trailing only Nevada and Arizona. Eight of the nation’s eighteenth fastest growing counties are in Colorado, led by national leader Douglas County. State population projections suggest an additional 1.7 million residents (approximately a 41 percent increase) can be expected over the next two decades. Most of these new residents will locate along the Front Range, a region with limited and already overburdened natural water supplies. Population growth on the West Slope is also expected to rise sharply, actually surpassing the growth rate of the Front Range in terms of percentages.

In many locales, the result of this growth is increased competition for limited water supplies between the municipal, agricultural, and environmental sectors, and between the East and West Slope. Among Front Range municipal water providers, the nature and intensity of this competition varies greatly from city to city due to different water rights portfolios and infrastructures. Many of the associated legal and policy issues involve trans-basin diversions, environmental protection, water quality management, and interstate obligations. Coping strategies generally focus on new development of surface and groundwater, reallocating supplies from agriculture to municipal use, and conservation and efficiency. Each type of solution, however, raises new problems and concerns, as new management strategies must be reconciled with existing water use regimes.

Managing water in a period of sustained growth will likely require finding mechanisms for exploiting advances in engineering and management, recognizing the true economics of water development and use, adapting laws that may unnecessarily limit progress, and perhaps reconsidering how we, as westerners, value and use our limited water resources. Fortunately, recent years have produced several innovative management strategies to build upon, including cooperative/joint water developments, small-scale and off-stream water storage, market-based water reallocations, temporary water transfers, groundwater development and conjunctive use, integration and coordinated operation of water systems, wastewater reuse, conservation and demand management, and cooperative solutions to environmental problems. These water management tools and strategies figure to play a prominent role in shaping how Colorado deals with growth pressures.

In highlighting these innovations, however, it should not be overlooked that some of the development, reuse, and efficiency strategies allowing more and more people (and uses) to be served by water systems can have the long-term effect of reducing the availability of undeveloped and unappropriated water in the state, while diminishing the excess — including the drought cushion — that currently exists in many water systems. These concerns generally do not surround strategies emphasizing reallocation and demand management; however, no strategy is without potential complications or drawbacks. Giving adequate consideration to all options can implicate issues that are outside of the normal purview of water managers, such as land-use management and the behavioral incentives provided to water users through law, policy and even culture. If these and related issues are to be seriously considered in devising future water management programs in Colorado, decision processes may need to feature more political leadership, planning, and public involvement than is currently the case.

The 191-page report features 13 pages of maps and figures, a detailed index, and more than 900 footnotes citing over 400 sources. It is available for $20 (plus $4 postage and handling), or $10 (plus $3 postage and handling) in the CD format, from the Natural Resources Law Center (            303-492-1286       or             303-492-1272      ;