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Climate and Drought


Amy Beatie, 2013 Emerging Leader Award Winner

Celebrate Amy Beatie by attending CFWE's 2013 President's Award Reception.

By Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs

Amy_Beatie_Emerging_Leader_webAmy Beatie fights drought by putting water back into parched Colorado streams for fish, wildlife and people. In the summer of 2012, when Western Slope streams were running precariously low, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust she leads helped to hold some of the hardest-hit waters together.

“In February of 2012, the snow wasn’t catching up,” says Beatie. “In March we realized the snow wasn’t coming at all.  It looked like a bad drought would hit every basin in the state.”

In 2003, another crucially short water year, the Colorado General Assembly enacted a short-term water lease statute to aid the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream flow program in drought years. Because Colorado’s instream flow law wasn’t adopted until 1973, the Board’s instream flow water rights are junior, or lower in priority, to senior rights under the state’s prior appropriation system of water administration. The 2003 law allowed the temporary use of leased senior water rights to shore up those junior instream flow rights using an expedited approval process.

“The question we were facing in 2012 was whether the leasing law would actually work,” Beatie explains. “We’re transaction-oriented. Between March and May, we pushed to identify critically short stream reaches; contacted potential funders; put out bids to farmers, ranchers, and all other water users; and worked with water users to help make water available to the state’s rivers.”

With the cost of each lease varying, the Trust scrambled successfully under intense time pressure to raise money to keep the streams running by changing water rights and putting them back into the river.

“The Gates Family Foundation was our earliest investor, giving us a $100,000 one-to-one matching grant for water leases. We were able to combine that together with project seed money we had from the Walton Family Foundation,” says Beatie. “We also received $50,000 from a partnership with National Geographic and Bonneville Environmental Foundation. The city of Steamboat Springs and the Kenney Brothers Foundation supplied  $10,000 each. We got a generous anonymous donation and a number of smaller grants to keep us going. We simply could not have done the program without this funding.”

The 2012 program benefitted the Yampa, the Upper Colorado, the Lower Colorado, and the White river watersheds. Beatie also remarked that partnerships were critical to the program’s success: “Of course, the staff and members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board were indispensable. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District were also very helpful, each in very different ways.”

Beatie’s staff is lean and effective. “When our board said ‘Go’ we went to work. We have a water rights specialist who works with an aquatic biologist to identify the most critically needed water rights in the hardest-hit stream reaches. They worked with our staff attorney and field specialist to complete transactions.”

Harnessing the law for the environment brings together Beatie’s education, passion and training. Her undergraduate school is Dartmouth where she majored in religious studies. Her law school is the University of Denver; she served there as editor-in-chief of the university’s Water Law Review before clerking with the Colorado Supreme Court and practicing law with the Porzak and White & Jankowski law firms. She’s a graduate of CFWE’s Water Leaders Program.

“My greatest source of strength and joy is my home life with Declan and our 2-year old son Cormac!”

Creative and Cooperative Groundwater Strategies

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Click the Fluent Water Facts above to learn more about Colorado’s groundwater and the challenges it poses.

An All-of-the-Above Strategy
Many communities and water utilities that have relied heavily on non-renewable groundwater supplies have turned to a number of options to reduce this use. Some of their strategies include:

Converting to renewable water supplies – Some communities hope to use surface water, in rivers or reservoirs, to augment their groundwater supplies. This is often difficult, as many surface water supplies already have more claims on the water than water available. Some of the new rights might also be too junior – too low in the prior appropriation system – to supply enough water, especially in dry years.

Transbasin diversions – Water can be moved from basins with more water to basins with less water. This usually involves transferring water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, but not always. These diversions, however, require construction of storage, conveyance systems, treatment plants, and distribution facilities, which is expensive. The diversion might also be unpopular in the basin of origin. Learn more about transbasin diversions in the Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Transbasin Diversions.

New storage facilities – Even if the water rights can be obtained, building reservoirs is an expensive and lengthy process. Many are also unpopular.

Working with other entities to share storage – Water utilities can share space in existing or future reservoirs, rather than building their own.

Preserving the aquifers – Elbert, Adams, Weld and El Paso counties have enacted a 300 Year Rule, rather than a 100 year rule. If developers are interested in using groundwater, they can only use 0.33% of the calculated water in storage, rather than 1%. Pumping the water at a slower rate should reduce drawdown and ensure longer aquifer life. The amount of water in the aquifer, however, is hard to estimate, so there is no guarantee that it will last three times as long as pumping at the 1% rate.

Transferring agricultural water rights to municipalities – Some farmers are willing to sell their water rights to municipalities, leaving their fields dry. These transfers are often controversial. New laws allow these transfers to be interruptible, rather than permanent sales. Crop rotation is also encouraged. You can read more about these transfers in the Fall 2012 Headwaters.

Water conservation – Many utilities use a variety of incentives to improve water use efficiency, change customer behavior, and reduce demand. Some utilities have introduced tiered rates, where using more water costs more, while others have raised rates. You can read more about these strategies in the Winter 2013 Headwaters.

Using surface and groundwater – Using both sources jointly ensures more reliable supplies than using either on its own. This strategy helps manage short-term shortages and minimizes the need for above-ground storage.

Potable and non-potable water reuse – Non-potable water, which is not suitable for human consumption, may be used on golf courses, parks, and open spaces.

Recharging aquifers – During wet years, surface water is stored for later use by injecting it into groundwater aquifers, rather than storing it in a surface reservoir. Centennial Water District uses this strategy.  The water is not lost to evaporation, as it would be in surface storage, but it must be pumped back up to the surface for use, which takes time and uses energy.

Additional Resource: The South Metro Water Supply Authority adopted a Regional Master Plan in 2007, which guides participating water providers as they reduce their reliance on deep groundwater and expand the role of renewable groundwater in meeting current and future water needs. You can learn more on their website.

Groundwater Supplies

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado’s groundwater and the challenges it poses.

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Hundred Year Honeymoon

Groundwater can take thousands of years to accumulate in aquifers, and some of these aquifers have little connection to replenishing precipitation on the surface – they are essentially considered non-renewable. If humans pump water from these non-renewable aquifers, how long will the water last?

The answer varies from aquifer to aquifer. It is difficult to estimate the amount of water available in any given aquifer. Each year, groundwater measurements throughout Colorado are posted by the Colorado Division of Water Resources. These measurements do not come from dedicated monitoring wells, so the measurement wells vary significantly in age and how they are pumped. The statistics illustrate the variability of aquifers, whose water levels may decline, rise, or stay the same.

Declines in the Denver Basin

Since aquifers are so variable, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the fate of Colorado’s groundwater. Statistics from the Denver Basin illustrate groundwater’s uncertain future.

Between 1990 and 2000, development in the south Denver metro area of northern Douglas County and southern Arapahoe County resulted in aquifer declines from 100 to almost 300 feet. In some parts of the Denver Basin, the most heavily developed aquifers see water level decreases of 30 feet per year. Water levels in the dominant municipal water supply aquifers, the Arapahoe and Laramie-Fox Hills, are not favorable. South Metro businesses and homes may have serious water supply challenges to address in the near future.

Managing a Limited Resource

The potential of exhausting groundwater supplies affects how this resource is managed. Well permits only grant the right to drill for water and pump at the specified rate – they do not guarantee how long the groundwater supply will last. Some groundwater permits require augmentation plans. Although there is significant debate regarding how much water is available in different parts of the Denver Basin, aquifer drawdown and a 100-year aquifer life are central parts of how the state decided to allocate this complex resource.

These groundwater challenges are unlikely to go away. Colorado’s population continues to increase – the population of Douglas County grew 191% between 1990 and 2000, and the state’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050.

Groundwater has traditionally been an attractive source because it has been plentiful, is of good quality, and is inexpensive to produce. As the water becomes less plentiful, and water table levels drop, groundwater will likely become more expensive to tap. It is possible that economic considerations will make groundwater an unattractive alternative before supplies are exhausted. Clearly, managing groundwater supplies will continue to require creative and collaborative solutions.


Groundwater Laws

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado’s groundwater and the challenges it poses.

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Early Colorado Water Law: Focus on Streams

Colorado’s semi-arid climate was a challenge to early American settlers. Growing crops required extensive irrigation networks. Settlers mostly drew their water from streams and rivers. When Colorado became a state, water law was established under the doctrine of prior appropriation, allowing the holders of senior (older) rights to draw water before the holders of junior (newer) rights in times of shortage.

At this time, groundwater use was minimal in most areas. Wells were generally shallow and hand-dug. Windmills pumped limited quantities of groundwater for livestock and homesteads. Throughout the decades, use of groundwater increased, but it was not until the 1950s that new technology, population growth, and drought would combine to push the state’s first set of extensive groundwater regulations into place.

Pressure from Below

Surface rights holders in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins became concerned that wells were pumping water that depleted streams, leaving senior surface rights unfulfilled. Since this groundwater pumping was not administered, as surface water was, senior surface rights holders had little recourse. In response, statutes and court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s required the State Engineer to administer tributary groundwater under the doctrine of prior appropriation.

Regulating Non-Tributary Groundwater

In 1957, the Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado Ground Water Commission for the purpose of examining and possibly regulating critical groundwater areas.

The Commission established eight “designated groundwater” basins in eastern Colorado. Under natural conditions, these basins do not recharge or supplement to any significant degree continuously flowing surface streams. Since these designated groundwater basins do not deplete water from surface streams, they are not administered by the prior appropriation doctrine. They are regulated by the Ground Water Commission, which uses a modified appropriation system to allocate designated water outside of the Denver Basin on a permit-by-permit basis. In the Denver Basin, designated groundwater is allocated to the owners of the overlying land.

Making Non-Renewable Water Last: The 100 Year Rule

In 1973, Senate Bill 213 established how water pumped from deep and potentially non-renewable aquifers should be managed. This bill also set criteria for the State Engineer to follow when issuing well permits in these bedrock aquifers. This established the 100-year pumping rule. Landowners who want to pump groundwater must first receive estimates of how much groundwater can be pumped from that source. Landowners may withdraw water at the rate of 1% of the aquifer resource under their property per year. In theory, this would ensure that the groundwater would last 100 years. In practice, however, there is no such guarantee. Estimates of the amount of water in an aquifer are not precise, so the supply could last more or less than 100 years.

Groundwater Rules for the Denver Basin

In 1985, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 5, which specifically addresses groundwater in the Denver Basin. Much of this water is considered non-renewable. Since most of this groundwater is non-tributary, pumping it should have little effect on the holders of surface water rights. The Senate recognized, however, that some hydrologic connection may be evidenced over very long time periods. They ruled that not all the water withdrawn from the non-tributary Denver Basin aquifers could be consumed; 2% had to be replaced. Most of this provision is met by return flows from outdoor watering or other sources.

The legislature also recognized that some of the deep Denver Basin aquifers were not completely separated from overlying streams, and were not actually non-tributary. These aquifers received the confusing designation “not-nontributary.” Areas along the South Platte River and Denver streams, including Monument Creek and Cherry Creek, are considered not-nontributary. Users of not-nontributary water must return at least 4% of the water they pump to the surface stream.


Groundwater poses certain unique difficulties of access and management. Digging wells to access this underground resource is an ancient practice. How do people access water far below the surface? How does it affect surface water? What rules govern groundwater? Here are a few key points for successful groundwater use:

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado’s groundwater and the challenges it poses.

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Know Your Rocks

Different types of rock are more likely to yield their stored water. It is easier to extract or drain water out of coarse-grained rocks like gravels or sandstones, because the pore spaces tend to be large and well-connected. In contrast, fine-grained rocks like mudstones, clays and shales yield water at much lower volumes and slower rates, because the smaller, less-connected pore spaces drain less efficiently. Fine-grained rocks yield little water and may even produce impermeable or confining layers separating aquifers.

Dig For It

Wells must reach the top surface of the groundwater, known as the water table. As the wells begin to drain away the water, the water table may shift downwards as the overall volume of groundwater declines. When this happens, deeper wells may be required to reach the new water table level.

Some wells are able to take advantage of artesian pressure, which helps raise groundwater nearer the surface with less pumping. Artesian pressure raises water above the top of the aquifer. In some cases, the water rises above the surface, forming a flowing artesian well. These often occur when recharge areas are several hundred feet higher in elevation than most of the basin, which occurs in the Denver Basin.

More Wells, More Water?

Multiple wells can tap into the same groundwater source. If a neighboring well pumps water at a faster rate, it can drain away the water from the first well. Both well users might then need to dig deeper wells, if water remains low.

Multiple wells can also decrease natural artesian pressure. When water levels decline, larger pumps and motors, as well as increasing energy usage, will be required to withdraw the same amount of water.

You Can’t Claim It All

Tributary groundwater, which is connected to surface streams, follows the same law as surface water – prior appropriation. Water claims with the older, or senior dates, may claim water before those with newer, or junior dates, in times of shortage.

The prior appropriation system cannot work properly in deep bedrock aquifers, which are usually non-tributary and slow to recharge. This is because the prior appropriation system seeks to protect senior rights holders from injury – that is, other users taking water that then does not leave enough water for the senior rights holder’s claim. After the first well starts pumping, all subsequent wells will naturally deplete the first well’s original artesian pressure, creating “injury.” Consequently, deep aquifers follow different laws.

No groundwater is completely non-tributary. If pumping does adversely affect surface streams, water rights holders should be compensated, usually by water being added to the stream through an augmentation plan to fulfill their right.

No Well is an Island

Most groundwater requires replenishment, or recharge, or some kind. Natural recharge occurs when rain or snowmelt works its way through the layers of soil and rock. Recharge can also be accomplished artificially, through specially-designed recharge ponds or injection wells.

Some areas rely on return flows for recharge. Return flows are ground or surface water that returns to rivers and shallow aquifers after being put to beneficial use, such as irrigation. Lawn-watering also produces returns flows for recharge. Increased water efficiency measures, however, may reduce return flows, requiring new sources of water for recharge.

The type of rock influences how long it will take an aquifer to recharge. Precipitation can work its way through the soil quickly, but takes far longer to infiltrate inter-layered sedimentary rocks. Some aquifers are confined by layers of impermeable rocks, and are essentially considered non-renewable.

Colorado River District member profile

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Why does the Colorado River District support Water Education Colorado?

As a Charter Member of the Foundation, the Colorado River District was among those spearheading the efforts to form a state-wide, non-partisan, non-advocacy public outreach resource for water information and education. Those formative efforts included drafting bylaws and articles of incorporation, building consensus for board composition and working closely with the bill sponsors of HB 02-1152, the authorizing legislation. 

It is clearly evident that the grassroots vision has become reality. The Colorado River District has and will continue to enthusiastically support Water Education Colorado as it continues to produce a wide range of innovative, professional and thought-provoking programs, tours and publications.

Why is water resources education important?

Water is essential to all life; it is our most vital, primary natural resource. With population growth, climate change, energy exploration, recreational interests, environmental enhancements and industry needs, there is an ever growing demand for this precious natural resource; but there is not more water. It is imperative to educate and prepare present and future generations. Only with the support of an informed and involved public can we properly balance consumptive and non-consumptive demands on Colorado’s limited water resources.

What does the Colorado River District do?

The River District serves, as chartered by the Colorado General Assembly, “for the conservation, use, and development of the water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries . . . to which the state of Colorado is equitably entitled.”

The District was the first of Colorado’s four water conservation districts and is funded almost exclusively through its property tax mill levy which is assessed on all taxable property within its 15-county jurisdiction. The District covers approximately 29,000 square miles, roughly 28% of the state. The District is governed by a Board of Directors with representation from each of its 15 counties.

The District provides legal, technical and political assistance to private, state and federal parties sharing an interest in the water resources in the Colorado River Basin; protects and assists others in developing water supplies; owns and operates water storage for Western Colorado water users; operates a water marketing program to help water providers meet local demands; operates a grant program to assist constituents with water supply projects; engages in water quality work, especially salinity and selenium control; and provides water education to residents and community leaders regarding the importance of water in the arid West.

Contact Information

Colorado River District
201 Centennial, Suite 200
Glenwood Springs, CO 81601

Northern Water member profile

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Why does Northern Water support Water Education Colorado?

Northern Water supports Water Education Colorado’s mission to promote a better understanding of Colorado’s water resources issues through sharing accurate information. Water Education Colorado’s dedication to educating residents about water helps us strengthen and maintain our own relationships with the public, improving our efforts to conserve, protect and plan for future regional water supplies.

Why is water resources education important?

Water resources education is extremely valuable because it allows the public to gain knowledge about a topic that is not always easy to grasp, yet is important to Colorado in so many ways. Whether it’s through children’s programs on conservation and keeping streams clean, or civic group presentations on water issues in the West, water education helps Coloradoans base their future actions on accurate information.

What does Northern Water do?

Northern Water is a public agency created in 1937 to contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which collects water on the West Slope and delivers it to the East Slope through a 13-mile tunnel that runs underneath Rocky Mountain National Park. Northern Water’s boundaries encompass portions of eight counties and a population of about 850,000 people. Besides water collection and distribution, Northern Water offers public presentations and education, weather data, streamflow and reservoir level monitoring and water quality research. Northern Water conserves and protects water supply quality and yield with numerous programs and participates in the Platte River Endangered Species program, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Species program and extensive water conservation programs to help the farmer, the homeowner and the landscape professional save water.

Contact info

220 Water Ave.
Berthoud, CO 80513


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WEco Climate Resources

Guide to Colorado Climate Change presents a range of contemporary climate change information written by experts. Take a look.

Water 101 Sheets are one-page references available for download and distribution. Explore the basics of drought, and wildfire or read various water conservation tips through a series of fact sheets. Interested in additional resources? Find them herefact_sheetsClimate Workshop
Participants tour the National Ice Core Lab, hear how researchers study climate and what that means locally. Learn more.

Connecting the Drops Radio

Listen to a radio feature on climate change's effects on Colorado farmers, spring runoff, and irrigation.

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