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In January, the same series of storms that left Denver’s streets covered in deep drifts also pushed Colorado’s snowpack north of 120 percent of its average for that point in the year. If your gauge was the number of ski runs open, it was great news. If your gauge was the state’s water supply, it was likely barely enough to maintain the status quo.
Study after study has shown that as the climate warms, more and more Centennial State snowmelt is lost through evaporation and other processes before it can find its way into our rivers, streams, and reservoirs. So we’ll need bigger than average snowpacks each winter just to keep reservoir levels and river flows from falling further—and unless everyone gets serious about tackling the climate crisis, that’s simply not going to happen. One recent study from researchers at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory found that Colorado could see a 50 to 60 percent reduction in snow within 60 years. When those same researchers used pattern recognition programs to group subregions of the Colorado River Basin by how each sector will respond to climate change, they found something disturbing: By 2080, much of western Colorado could experience aridity similar to Arizona’s.
What’s even more alarming is that, in many ways, the future is already here. This past June, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River through a network of reservoirs, announced that the seven states in the Colorado River Basin had 60 days to devise a plan to reduce the amount of river water they use annually by two to four million acre feet, as much as a third of the waterway’s annual flow. The proposed reduction is meant to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dead pool, the point at which the reservoirs become so low that water can no longer flow through their dams, drastically reducing water supplies for millions in the Southwest. After the states failed to meet that deadline, another was set for January 31. Six states managed to agree on a proposal that fell half a million acre feet short of the minimum. Add in California’s refusal to sign, and it’s likely the federal government will have to take unilateral action. This discord only adds to the sense among experts that we’ve entered a new era for water in much of the West.
Meanwhile, water levels are still dropping and the ripple effects of whatever compromise is reached—or isn’t reached—will be felt far beyond that river basin, including in Denver, which gets much of its water from the Western Slope. There is some cause for hope, however. From new cash crops that aren’t nearly as thirsty to science-fiction-worthy technology for forecasting droughts, there are ways to decrease demand and stretch supply. “You need to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible,” says Greg Fisher, demand planning and efficiency manager at Denver Water. “This is Colorado. Even if you could take the drought and the Colorado River [crisis] out of the equation, we’re still a water-constrained state with a growing population. People need to appreciate what water is for. It’s for life, safety, and health. I think anything beyond that is discretionary, and I don’t know if we’re at the point where we can afford discretionary use.”
The amount of water needed to cover one acre of land in a foot of water, or around 325,851 gallons. The average Colorado home uses half an acre foot of water each year.
The Way Forward: Enter the Multiverse
In January, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) updated the Colorado Water Plan. The document, first published in 2015, lays out the actions stakeholders—from ranchers to utility companies—can take to prepare for a drier Centennial State. It also tries to predict the future. Using climate models and input from experts, the plan outlines a range of possible tomorrows. They all have one thing in common: If we don’t start implementing strategies like building new reservoirs and banning thirsty grass lawns—neither of which are baked into CWCB’s prognostications—there won’t be enough H²O to go around by 2050. Here are the many water worlds we could encounter.
Temperature Increase: None
The economy at home and abroad struggles, and that’s good, at least when it comes to water supplies. Both population growth and greenhouse gas emissions are lower than predicted due to a stagnant economy, decreasing water demand and helping to maintain a climate similar to the 20th century average.
Municipal and Industrial Water Shortage: 230,000 acre feet
Agricultural Water Shortage: 2.3 million acre feet
Business As Usual
Temperature Increase: None
In this scenario, not much changes. The climate doesn’t warm as predicted; cities continue to sprawl; water regulations and conservation efforts remain patchwork; and developers keep buying up farms—and their all-important water rights—to build single-family homes. Because agriculture is the state’s largest water user, fewer fields of cash crops mean less agricultural demand compared to a few other possible futures.
Municipal and Industrial Water Shortage: 340,000 acre feet
Agricultural Water Shortage: 2.3 million acre feet
Temperature Increase: 3.8 F
Coloradans embrace environmental stewardship. Expanded public transportation helps lead to denser, more efficient urban growth. New technologies help conserve water, and because some climate models predict more rain as the planet warms, this scenario actually takes into account a five percent increase in precipitation. But a hotter climate counteracts that boost, the state population reaches nearly nine million, and water shortages are greater than what we’d see under the business-as-usual outlook.
Municipal and Industrial Water Shortage: 290,000 acre feet
Agricultural Water Shortage: 2.9 million acre feet
Temperature Increase: 4.2 F
New technologies help individuals use water more efficiently. Clean energy becomes more widespread, and social values prioritizing conservation lead to a 21-gallon drop in daily water use per Coloradan. But the state’s booming population means overall demand still swells.
Municipal and Industrial Water Shortage: 420,000 acre feet
Agricultural Water Shortage: 2.8 million acre feet
Temperature Increase: 4.2 F
Replace Adaptive Innovation’s green zeitgeist with a business-first mentality, and it’s not just the climate that’s heated—Colorado’s economy is booming, too. Pro-growth business regulations and a skyrocketing population as people flee warming regions elsewhere create the biggest shortages.
Municipal and Industrial Water Shortage: 740,000 acre feet
Agricultural Water Shortage: 3.5 million acre feet
Colorado River Compact
This interstate agreement signed in 1922 sought to equitably divide its namesake river’s water among the seven Colorado River Basin states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico (Upper Basin) and Arizona, California, and Nevada (Lower Basin). As a headwater state, Colorado is required to ensure a certain amount of water flows downstream.
How We Got Here: A River in Crisis
For almost two decades, the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven Colorado River Compact states have been working to manage the Colorado River’s shrinking water supplies and, ultimately, to prevent lakes Mead and Powell—the nation’s largest reservoirs, which are filled by the Colorado River—from drying out. But half measures, a relentless drought, and an accelerating climate crisis have authorities struggling to keep up. “The period between emergencies and Band-Aids is getting shorter and shorter,” says Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director at the Nature Conservancy, an international environmental nonprofit. So last June, when the bureau called on the states governed by the compact to cut the amount of water they draw from the river each year by two to four million acre feet to keep the reservoirs from reaching dead pool, she wasn’t all that surprised. “If I were a betting person,” Hawes says, “I would say it needs to be closer to four million acre feet, because the bureau has been getting it wrong every time.”
The current megadrought begins. It will be the region’s worst since 800 C.E.
The Colorado River sees record low water flows.
To augment the compact, the states and the federal government adopt interim guidelines, which outline water supply cuts if reservoirs drop to certain levels.
The bureau realizes levels in Mead and Powell are falling faster than forecasted.
The bureau and the compact states sign the Upper and Lower Basin Drought Contingency plans, which expand on the 2007 guidelines with strategies to prop up Mead and Powell if necessary.
The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan is implemented, which includes holding back 192,000 acre feet of water designated for Arizona.
Under the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan, the bureau drains two Upper Basin reservoirs to maintain Lake Powell. A third is partially drained in the fall.
Federal officials declare the river’s first water shortage, triggering more cuts to the Lower Basin.
The bureau releases another 500,000 acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs to prevent Lake Powell from reaching dead pool.
Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to drop. The bureau tells the seven compact states they have two months to find a way to conserve millions of acre feet. The states miss
The bureau begins laying the legal groundwork to act on its own in summer 2023. Worsening forecasts prompt the bureau to temporarily hold back an additional 523,000 acre feet in Powell.
Six compact states agree to a proposal, but California holds out.
The Way Forward: Changing Tides
In the future, we’ll all be drinking recycled water.
One way we can help close the looming municipal water supply gap is to take the water we already have and use it again. And again. And again. To that end, this past November, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission adopted a set of regulations governing direct potable reuse (DPR). The process takes wastewater from our sinks, showers, and, yes, toilets and processes it to such a high standard that it can be pumped straight back into our local tap water systems instead of being used in industrial settings or released into rivers to mix with natural flows. Grossed out? You shouldn’t be. All water is recycled water, says John Rehring, Colorado’s national representative to the WateReuse Association, a trade organization that promotes water recycling. “We’re drinking the same stuff that the dinosaurs drank,” he says. “It’s just now we’re doing this more intentionally, more deliberately, and with the proper engineering so that we know it’s safe.” If you’ve ever used a backpacking filter or a Brita jug, you’re already familiar with some of DPR’s core technologies, but we break it down in more detail below.
Step 1: Initial Processing
An existing reclamation facility readies the wastewater for release back into the environment by removing solids, impurities, and organic matter. But instead of being diverted into a river or hydrating a golf course, the H²O is sent to a DPR treatment system.
Step 2: Ozonation
Ozone may cause air quality problems each summer, but when the gas is diffused into water at a DPR facility, it can break down organic matter and pathogens by fracturing the chemical bonds that hold them together. Then the ozone, which is composed of three oxygen atoms, quickly turns into dissolved oxygen.
Step 3: Filtration
The H²O is then run through carbon filters imbued with specialized bacteria that feed on organic matter before it passes through a membrane with pores 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair, basically a highly advanced, industrial version of a backpacking water filter. Finally, activated carbon, the charcoal-like substance that’s in your kitchen sink filter, acts like a sponge to absorb any additional organics and chemicals.
Step 4: Ultraviolet Disinfection
The water is exposed to ultraviolet light that packs enough energy to eliminate trace organic chemicals and damage the DNA of microorganisms to prevent them from reproducing.
Step 5: Chlorination
The purification process finishes with chlorine, which not only kills any pathogens that somehow made it this far but also keeps the water safe until it flows into your sink, just like traditional tap water.
How We Got Here: Down for the Count
When it comes to the water crisis in the Southwest, the arithmetic is simple: Our supply does not equal our demand.
Approximate number of people who depend on the Colorado River
Amount of Colorado River water, in acre feet, allocated annually to the seven Colorado River Compact states
Average annual flow, in acre feet, of the Colorado River during the current megadrought
Amount of water, in acre feet, that flowed into Lake Powell in November 2022
Acre feet released from the reservoir that same month
Amount of water, in acre feet, pumped from west of the Continental Divide in Colorado to the east each year
Percent of Colorado’s annual precipitation that falls west of the Continental Divide
Percent of the state’s population that lives east of the divide
Percent of the total capacity of Lake Mead and Lake Powell that was filled at the end of the 2022 water year on September 30
Percent of Colorado’s water supply that comes from the Colorado River
The Way Forward: Laser Focused
A new technology is about to change how we measure snowpack forever.
With the vast majority of Colorado’s precipitation coming in the form of white flakes, understanding how much water is locked in our snowpack—and how fast it’s melting—is vital to all levels of water management. Now, how we take those measurements is about to undergo a paradigm shift. Researchers are using planes equipped with laser range finders—basically hyper-powered versions of what golfers use to find the distance to the hole—to survey the snowpack with a degree of detail that is impossible to achieve with the smattering of land-based installations we’ve relied on since the mid-1960s. “It’s hard to describe how much it’s changed the way we do business in the context of water management,” says Noah Molotch, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder and a fellow at its Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research who’s currently running two remote sensing projects for the Bureau of Reclamation. “We’re right at the cusp of transitioning from the research phase to the operational phase.” Here’s how it could work.
A) First, a plane equipped with a laser range finder and precision GPS flies over a watershed in the summer to map its exact elevation profile. According to the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement (CASM) program, an entity that has received grant funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to test measuring snowpack with laser-equipped aircraft, just one flight can measure up to 1,351 square miles, nearly the size of the Roaring Fork Valley.
B) The same flight is repeated in winter, but now the snow reflects the laser. The difference between the two elevation measurements is the snow’s depth. Since snow only holds a fraction of the H²O found in the equivalent volume of liquid water, calculating how dense the snowpack is, and thus how much water it holds, is crucial for predicting spring runoff. Density can’t be measured by lasers, so automated ground stations measure the weight of the snow as it piles up on steel plates.
C) It’s not just about how much snow will melt. It’s about when it will melt. By measuring the amount of sunlight the snow reflects, remote sensing systems can determine how much light it’s not reflecting. That helps researchers understand how much solar energy the snow is absorbing and how fast it’s heating up.
D)Traditional snowpack estimates can be off by 40 percent or more, according to CASM. This technique’s error range, on the other hand, is typically between five and 10 percent. That increased precision could help farmers tailor their crop selections to the coming growing season’s water supplies; reservoir operators should be able to better optimize the amount of spring runoff they capture, while still leaving room to absorb floodwater; and fire, drought, and flood forecasters will be able to further refine their predictions.
How We Got Here: Dried Out
For decades, Colorado cities have been purchasing agricultural water rights to quench their ever-increasing thirst. One rural county serves as a warning for what can go wrong.
There’s an old saying: “Why do people rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.” That’s why agriculture is vulnerable. It’s where the water is. As cities grow, the only way to secure new water sources is to buy agricultural water rights from farms and ranches. That may be a quick fix, but it’s not without ramifications.
In the 1970s, Crowley County, located due east of Pueblo, had around 50,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land. Today, that number stands at just under 4,000. As a farmer in the county, a former elected official, and a retired water adviser at the Palmer Land Conservancy, which protects 137,000 acres of land in Colorado, Matt Heimerich has seen how the transfer of water rights to nearby urban centers gutted the region. “Very little remediation was ever performed,” he says, “and now there is this cycle of growing weeds, drying out, and then dust and blowing dirt.” Worse yet, because fallowed land is worth a lot less than the irrigated farmland it replaced, the county’s tax base dried up, too. To shore up their economy, local leaders helped bring a prison to the area, but Heimerich still worries about what the future holds. “Will everyone have to live in a metropolitan area because that’s where the water and the jobs are?” he says. “Or is there still room for an economy based on irrigated agriculture?”
As municipalities continue to purchase agriculture water rights, Heimerich would like to see those cities and towns pay to plant native grasses on the acreage they’re drying up. That would both increase the local quality of life by preventing the weeds and dust and create healthier soil that could absorb more moisture.
Heimerich also wants to see rural communities compensated for the hit to their economies, or better yet, for municipal water managers and farmers to sign agreements that would put land back into production when there’s enough water. Heimerich admits that won’t work everywhere. Some cities are growing so fast that they likely won’t have any choice but to dry Colorado farms forever. “I just don’t know if the math works any other way,” he says. “But what’s the trade-off? What does that mean to our local food supply? What does that mean for Palisade peaches and Pueblo chile peppers, and how do you place a value on that? Those are existential questions that need to be asked.”
The Way Forward: Make Hay…While the Water Is Flowing
Agriculture uses 91 percent of Colorado’s water supply, a number that will likely change as future reductions zero in on farmers and ranchers. Those who don’t sell their water rights will need to find ways to balance the health of their land and their water supply with the need to stay in business for another year, says Troy Bauder, a water quality specialist in Colorado State University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. The key? Plan for a hotter, drier future from the soil up.
Adaptation: No-till Farming
What it is: Typically, farmers prepare their fields for planting by mechanically upturning the soil to incorporate fertilizers into the dirt, control weeds, and aerate the land. No-till practices see seeding happen with little soil disturbance.
What it does: No-till farming not only preserves the dirt’s organic matter, including beneficial microbes, by reducing oxidation, but it also reduces erosion and increases the amount of moisture the ground can absorb and retain.
Bottom line: This process isn’t just climate change adaptation, Bauder says: It’s climate change mitigation. The more organic matter underground, the less carbon that can find its way into the atmosphere.
Adaptation: Soil Armor
What it is: Unused plant material is left in the field after harvest or a cover crop is grown.
What it does: Soil armor increases water absorption and retention, slows evaporation, prevents weeds and erosion, increases the soil’s organic content, and traps snow that would otherwise blow away.
Bottom line: While soil armor is a great way to increase soil moisture and health, farmers still need enough water to grow the armor in the first place, Bauder says.
What it is: These crop species don’t need to be reseeded every year.
What it does: Perennial plants tend to have more extensive root systems than annual crops, meaning they hold more carbon underground, help the ground soak up more water, and tolerate droughts more effectively.
Bottom line: Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, could potentially use 30 percent less water than alfalfa, of which 780,000 acres were harvested in Colorado in 2021.
Adaptation: Drought-Tolerant Crops
What it is: CSU has been breeding varieties of major cash crops, such as winter wheat, that are tailored to the state’s increasingly arid climate.
What it does: Some varieties are bred to produce a viable, if modest, harvest in dry years, while others create abundant yields during wet years.
Bottom line: By selecting crop varieties adapted to the coming season’s predicted conditions, farmers can maximize their profits or hedge their bets.
The Way Forward: Uprooted
Why the Colorado River crisis means you will see less Kentucky bluegrass in Denver
Last summer, while the Colorado River Compact states were fighting over how to reduce their consumption, five regional water managers decided they couldn’t wait to take action. “While municipal water users are a small part of it,” says Denver Water’s Greg Fisher, referring to the fact that urban areas only use seven percent of the Centennial State’s supply, “we wanted to make a commitment to show that we are going to be part of the solution.”
That pledge manifested as a memorandum of understanding in which its signers—Denver Water, Aurora Water, Pueblo Water, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—promised to work toward a variety of water conservation goals. The most measurable target? Reduce nonfunctional turf—aka grass whose only job is to look good—in their service areas by 30 percent.
By November, more than 20 additional utilities had signed the agreement; most are still figuring out how to implement it. Denver Water will likely focus on easy wins by targeting public land first, Fisher says. Eventually, homeowners will likely have to re-envision their yards, too. To that end, Aurora already went beyond the memorandum in September by becoming the first municipality in Colorado to ban nonfunctional turf in certain types of new developments, such as office parks. New single-family homes can still have backyard lawns, but the grass can’t exceed 500 square feet or 45 percent of the yard’s total area, whichever is smaller.
The city of Aurora also offers financial incentives to encourage owners of existing homes to install drought-tolerant landscaping. “A water-wise landscape can easily save 50 to 75 percent of the water that turf would use in that exact same amount of space,” says Tim York, water conservation supervisor for Aurora Water, and with outdoor water use making up roughly half of Aurora’s total usage, that could have an outsize impact. It could also serve as a model for other cities throughout the state. “With everything in the news about Colorado’s water issues,” York says, “I think people’s appetite for making the change is only increasing.”
How We Got Here: When a River Runs Dry
What happens if Colorado fails to deliver enough water to its downstream neighbors? It’s happened before.
No one is quite sure what consequences Colorado will face if it doesn’t meet its obligations under the Colorado River Compact—the magnitude of the crisis goes far beyond the legal IOUs on which the system has been built—but there is precedent. Seven Centennial State waterways are subject to interstate compacts. These are basically treaties that divvy up a river’s water so that the upstream state can’t suck it dry before it reaches the border and so that the downstream state, which usually has the senior water rights and thus first dibs, can’t claim the river’s entire flow. Three of those seven rivers have already experienced compact administration, which means Colorado was forced to reduce its use, dry up wells, and pay damages.
Length: 1,450 miles
Compact Signed: 1922
States: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California
La Plata River
Length: 70 miles
Compact Signed: 1922
States: Colorado, New Mexico
South Platte River
Length: 442 miles
Compact Signed: 1923
States: Colorado, Nebraska
Length: 1,900 miles
Compact Signed: 1938
States: Colorado, New Mexico, Texas
Colorado was routinely in violation of its Rio Grande compact commitments from the 1940s through the 1960s as new farming techniques allowed less of the water used for irrigation to find its way back into the river. Texas and New Mexico sued in 1966, and although Colorado settled the next year, it took until 1985 for the state to pay off its water debt. Today, the state is paying local farmers to fallow their farmlands to help reduce consumption and stay in compliance.
Length: 430 miles
Compact Signed: 1942
States: Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas
In addition to overpumping from wells, much of the water that Colorado owed downstream on the Republican River evaporated or seeped out of the Eastern Plains’ Bonny Reservoir, and in 2011, the state was forced to drain the lake. Even that wasn’t enough to reach compliance, and the Republican River Water Conservation District is currently working to raise $65 million to pay farmers in its portion of the river basin to retire 25,000 acres of irrigated land.
Length: 51 miles
Compact Signed: 1944
States: New Mexico, Colorado
Length: 1,460 miles
Compact Signed: 1948
States: Colorado, Kansas
Colorado farmers in the Arkansas River basin used so much water that the river’s flow fell below what was legally owned to Kansas. In 1985, Kansas sued, and a decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its favor. To help the state get back into compliance, a Colorado water court ordered numerous wells to shut down. All told, the region’s water supplies were reduced by a third, and Colorado was also ordered to pay Kansas $34.6 million in damages.
“When Bonny Reservoir was drained, that was a horrible time in our area. Everyone was devastated because it was our only place for water recreation in northeast Colorado. Now, we have to retire thousands of acres of irrigated land. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place because we need irrigated land; it’s such a driver for our local economy. But we have to find ways to conserve what water we have left to elongate the lifespan of our aquifer so that our children and the people who follow us will at least have water to drink.” –Deb Daniel, general manager of the Republican River
The Way Forward: Hang Together (Or Hang Separately)
The director of the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program sees cause for hope, mostly because things could be much worse.
Back in July, not long after the Bureau of Reclamation announced that the seven Colorado River Compact states had to come up with a plan to reduce their use of the river’s water, Taylor Hawes, the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, was worried about what would happen if the states went to court instead of the negotiating table. “It’s almost impossible to get your mind around how much water needs to be conserved and how quickly it needs to happen,” she said at the time. “Litigation will definitely not be fast enough. If we litigate, we’ve already lost.”
By mid-December, more than 100 days after the bureau’s initial deadline came and went, no deal had been reached but neither had the lawsuits materialized. Hawes was cautiously optimistic. “I do think there is a commitment to avoid litigation, if at all possible,” she says, “but [going through the courts] is a strategy to get the best deal they can…so there are still rumblings.” And after California refused to sign a compromise in late January, those stirrings have been growing louder and louder.
Now it will likely be up to the federal government to impose drastic changes that upend 100 years of precedent. To that end, the Bureau of Reclamation plans to release an update to the compact’s 2007 interim guidelines in June, which will empower the agency to significantly reduce how much water it releases from lakes Powell and Mead under the compact—and give it some legal cover if it is sued by the states it shorts.
But June is still months away, and according to a forecast released in December by the bureau, water at Lake Powell could drop below dead pool that same month. The timeline and the consequences are why there’s a growing sentiment that water users need to act outside of the compact, Hawes says, citing a project that will see New Mexico lease 20,000 acre feet of water a year from the Jicarilla Apache Nation. The water will be released from the Navajo Reservoir into the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, to protect endangered fish from low flows and shore up New Mexico’s water security. “The Jicarilla Apache Nation…hopes that this transaction can serve as a model across the basin for collaboration,” nation president Edward Velarde said in a statement. (The Nature Conservancy assisted with the development of the agreement.) But no one knows if we can stave off disaster in time.
“The next six months to a year will be critical to whether we create a system that is sustainable and resilient for the future,” Hawes says. And if the worst happens? If the system that 40 million people rely on crashes? “Rivers are renewable,” she says. “Just because the system drops below these critical thresholds doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We can create a system from that day forward that builds in sustainable use of the water that is actually there.”