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Water Planning & Distribution

Water Education Colorado believes that our work in providing unbiased and accurate water information and education will help Coloradans make more informed decisions about this precious natural resource. Through our tours, publications and other educational programs, we hope to create a more informed citizenry that can make more informed decisions about their personal water use, local water supplies, and the state's water policies.  We work at all levels, from homeowners to state legislators, to achieve our mission. In these pages, you can learn more about our programs and the impact we hope to have:

Interstate Compacts

Energy & Water

Water Law


Water Planning and Distribution

Water Conservation


Water Quality

Climate and Drought


Cover of the Citizen's Guide to Colorado Cliate ChangeThe Foundation is pleased to announce the release of the latest in our Citizen's Guide series: Citizen's Guide to Colorado Climate Change. The Guide was authored by multiple experts in the field, and contains details on current climate change research in Colorado. Now available in our online store or by calling 303-377-4433. All Citizen's Guides can be viewed electronically or purchased through our online store.
CFWE Education

Throughout time, Coloradans have struggled to harvest enough water to meet our needs. Colorado’s fluid past has shaped the way we use and manage water.

The state's dry climate has challenged residents across the centuries. People face a common dilemma: how can we find and store enough water? How do we ensure that this water is divided and used fairly? How do we maintain the quality of the water and the natural environment?

For years, Coloradans have engineered solutions to these problems, enacting laws to ensure fair distribution of water. These laws undergo revision as Colorado’s needs and values change. Colorado’s water history, and its water future, will require a careful balance of its agricultural, municipal, industrial, recreational, and environmental needs.

Click the fluent water facts below to read more about the fascinating events that have shaped Colorado’s water history. Stories were selected from the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Water Heritage and the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Environmental Era.

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Groundwater is an important source of water in dry Colorado – but it presents its own challenges and requires its own set of rules. Good management is critical.

Most of it Lies Between a Rock…and Another Rock

In semi-arid Colorado, we maintain a delicate balance between water supply and demand. As population increases, more and more claims are put on Colorado’s available surface water – rivers, streams, and lakes. In years of drought, these resources are especially strained. Increasing use of groundwater may seem like a logical alternative to these stretched resources. But Colorado’s groundwater presents its own challenges, which require thoughtful management and creative solutions.

Groundwater does not exist as underground lakes, streams, and veins. Most groundwater is located in very small spaces between rocks, or in narrow fractures and cracks. This water must be extracted from deep below the surface. But getting the water is not the only difficulty.

Groundwater requires recharge – water from the surface must make its way down through layers of soil and rock to the aquifer. Without recharge, humans can drain away all the groundwater.

Groundwater poses two huge challenges to Colorado’s water users:

1. Some of the groundwater is connected to surface water, and using groundwater can deplete the surface streams. These depletions affect the rights holders of those streams.

2. Some groundwater took so long to accumulate that it is essentially non-renewable – if we drain all the groundwater, we will have none left.

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

Colorado is no stranger to hot and dry weather, but water shortages create headaches for all Coloradans. Changing climate could require us to change how we use and share this vital resource.

Colorado’s climate largely determines the amount of water available for our use. Although climate varies widely from year to year, Colorado is mostly a dry state. The average statewide precipitation is 16 inches per year, but this varies from year to year and from region to region. The San Luis Valley receives an average of 7 inches per year, while the mountains receive an average of 50 inches. Mountain snowfall may reach more than 300 inches in a single year!

Rainfall and snowmelt infiltrate rock and soil layers, increasing soil moisture and filling rivers and aquifers. Most Colorado rivers depend on snowmelt, rather than rainfall, for the majority of their volume, so winter storms are especially critical.

Precipitation in Colorado fluctuates markedly: long droughts are followed by sudden floods. Some decades are dryer or wetter than others. Sometimes Colorado’s climate seems to follow no discernible pattern. This makes predicting how climate change may impact the state’s water especially tricky. Colorado’s citizens and water managers must be prepared to deal with changing quantities of water.


Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado's climate.

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Colorado’s water belongs to the people of Colorado. Colorado water law establishes a system of rights to divide this public resource for beneficial use.

Water is the key to life, but it is a limited resource. Different users including industries, cities, farmers, recreationists, and environmentalists, all compete for Colorado’s water. Population growth, changing needs, and climate change affect the amount of water available. Since demands change, water law must be flexible. Colorado’s water law has evolved with the customs and values of its people.

Read more in the Citizen's Guide to Colorado Water Law

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado water law.

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First in Time, First in Right

Colorado’s dry climate creates many challenges for water users, who frequently move water vast distances from its source to its area of use. These challenges made the water law framework common in the eastern United States, riparian law, impractical. Riparian law, says that only those with land adjoining the stream have a right to use the stream water.

Colorado adopted a different system--prior appropriation. This system is commonly summed up as “first in time, first in right.” This means that those with senior (older) rights can begin to use water before junior (newer) rights holders in times of water shortages.

The Basis of Colorado’s Water Law

Colorado needed a clear system of law to identify and protect water rights, with reliable administration and enforcement of those rights, and the flexibility to allow those rights to be transferred, sold, or exchanged. The Colorado Doctrine is a set of laws governing water use and land ownership, adopted by the people of Colorado starting in the 1860s. Its four major principles are:

  1. All surface and groundwater in Colorado is a public resource for beneficial use by public agencies, private persons, and entities;
  2. A water right is a right to use a portion of the public’s water resources;
  3. Water rights owners may build facilities on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use; and,
  4. Water rights owners may use streams and aquifers for the transportation and storage of water.
Water Planning & Distribution

River of Words is an international poetry and art competition for students on the theme of watersheds and the environment designed to help youth explore the natural and cultural history of the place they live, and to express what they discover in poetry and visual art.  The Colorado Center for the Book administers and judges the competition.  You can learn more at the Colorado Humanities website.

CFWE, in partnership with Colorado Humanities, developed a curriculum guide for the River of Words contest,  Teaching the Poetry of Rivers.  Teachers can use this curriculum to incorporate the multi-disciplinary study of watershed science and poetry into their classrom instruction. The free lesson plans and resources culminate with students submitting their original poetry to the nationally renowned River of Words poetry contest.

The deadline for the 2012-2013 competition was December 1, 2012.

Due to its importance and the controversy that often surrounds water resource decisions, water is frequently covered in Colorado media. There are a number of very good sites that compile newspaper and television coverage on water in Colorado.

Here are a few of the best:

CFWE Posters
CFWE Books
IBCC Education

Photograph by Michael LewisEach year, Water Education Colorado takes lawmakers, water managers, attorneys and engineers, and members of the public on a multi-day tour of a river basin in Colorado. These fun and informative tours are a much anticipated event, drawing attendees statewide. In addition to learning about the history, water management practices and challenges of the basin, participants can take part in extra-curricular activities such as rafting or fly-fishing, dine at exclusive area ranches or open-space parks and have time to increase their network of peers.

Headwaters magazine is a semi-annual publication that features interviews, updates and in-depth articles on fundamental water resource topics. The following issues are available in PDF format for you to read online. Hardcopies are available as a membership benefit.

 Headwaters Winter 2015—Colorado's Water Plan


Efforts to develop a state roadmap for water have been long and hard. As of December 2014, Coloradans have a draft water plan, outlining our collective priorities and plans for managing our most precious resource, looking out to 2050. Read this issue to explore the Then, Now and Next of the water plan—how severe drought, competing demands, changing demographics and a governor's order culminated in this draft; how far did we get by late 2014; and even after the first plan is finalized in 2015, how much work remains to ensure success. Flip through or download the issue here


Want to receive Headwaters? Support water education by becoming a member of Water Education Colorado.

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Explore the nexus of land use and water, opportunities to merge these fields of planning, and protections to ensure the adequacy of water supplies—for both those who call Colorado home today and tomorrow. Flip through or download the issue here

Want to receive Headwaters? Support Headwaters and water education by donating to the Headwaters Fund or becoming a member of Water Education Colorado.


Revered and manipulated, cherished and disregarded, the Colorado is a lifeline and an overallocated system exacerbated by drought. Explore this defining moment on the Colorado, fact check some assumptions about the river, and read about ways that Colorado is taking proactive steps to shore up contingency plans for water shortage. Flip through or download the issue here

HW Winter2018 FINAL2cover 

On Colorado's public lands, climate change and a growing population pose new challenges: fire danger, funding gaps, source water protection, and the need to balance various interests. Yet myriad Coloradans are uniting to reimagine this land of many uses. Water management depends on working together. Read more about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine. 

Flip through or download the issue here.



Water Education Colorado's mini-tours aim to engage water professionals, decision-makers, teachers, and the interested public by exposing them to new areas of water use and management. Hop on the bus for a busy day of valuable learning and networking, and return home better informed. Have a great idea for an upcoming tour? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. IMG 8118 web

Water Education Colorado produces and partners to host a spread of conferences and workshops, allowing us to enhance understanding of water's role in Colorado and its inherent complexities and tradeoffs.

  • Each fall, Water Education Colorado partners with the Colorado Riparian Association and the Colorado Watershed Assembly to produce the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference. This conference works to expand cooperation and collaboration throughout Colorado in natural resource conservation, protection and enhancement by informing participants about new issues and innovative projects and through invaluable networking.
  • On occasion Water Education Colorado offers webinars. In the past we've reached audiences such as the Colorado Municipal League along with our own membership. Stay tuned for future webinar announcements.

Who owns water in rivers? Does it belong to the state where the water originated? What about the states downstream? Who decides who gets how much water? These are the basic questions at the heart of Colorado’s river compacts. Colorado is a headwaters state, home to the origins of four major rivers: the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Platte, and the Arkansas. Although these rivers begin in Colorado, they flow through 18 other states and the Republic of Mexico. People and governments have disputed who should control and use the water in these rivers. Compacts, agreements between the states, seek to peacefully allocate river water.

These compacts determine how much water Coloradans can use. Since groundwater and river water are closely linked, these compacts also affect how much water we can pump from wells. As Coloradans decide who can claim the state’s water – urban, industrial, agricultural, and recreational users, among others – we must comply with the terms of interstate compacts.

What is a compact? A compact is an agreement between two or more states approved by their state legislatures and Congress under the authority of the U.S. Constitution. Compacts are similar to treaties between states. A water compact is a contract between two or more states setting the terms for sharing the water of an interstate stream.

What is the primary purpose of a water compact? The primary purpose is to establish under state and federal law how the water of an interstate stream system will be shared between users in different states.

Click the fluent water facts below to learn about Colorado's interstate compacts.

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All day, everyday, Coloradans depend on energy to meet our basic needs. But for many, energy is simply there when we need it at the turn of a switch-- and out of sight means out of mind. There's a disconnect between production and consumption that fuels a lack of basic understanding about the costs and benefits of producing and using energy.

Those providing water to Coloradans empathize, as they struggle with the same public education concerns. Bridge the energy/water divide and speak fluent water with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Learn about:

  • Energy that is produced in Colorado
  • The amount of water used and available for energy production
  • Efforts in place to protect water used during energy development
  • How Colorado is developing its energy resources while protecting important environments and communities

Colorado agriculture is a major $40 billion industry and is also the state's dominant water user. Irrigated farmland covers just 9 percent of the state's privately owned land area, but accounts for 86 percent of its total water diversions. Growing demands from competing water users threaten to reduce irrigated farming and ranching in coming decades. At the same time, the continued variability of water supplies due to drought, groundwater overdraft, and other factors may impact future water availability, delivery and timing for agricultural and other water uses. 

Water Origin Resources

The Citizen's Guide to Where your Water Comes From explains how weather patterns and aquifers supply the water we use. Learn more about the intricate distribution systems Coloradans have developed to deliver water to our farms and cities.  Flip through the online version or purchase a copy.

Citizen s Guide  4a40f4c93383c

The Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Transbasin Diversions highlights the history, costs and benefits of these controversial water projects, from both an historic and current point of view. Flip through the online version or purchase a copy.

Transbasin Diversions


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