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Water Planning & Distribution

Transporting Water

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about where your water comes from.


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How does water travel from source to tap?

Many Coloradans live far away from major rivers. Using river water requires an extensive network of ditches, canals, and pipes.

Canals and ditches are open channels that convey the diverted water using the force of gravity as their major source of energy. Many ditches follow the land’s topography, sometimes winding for miles. Canals and ditches are usually earthen, although though some are lined with concrete. Unlined systems lose water to seepage, but this water, a type of return flow, recharges aquifers and returns to rivers. Open ditches also lose water to evaporation and vegetation, so not all the water makes it to the user.

At certain points along the canal, headgates release water into smaller ditches or pipelines. These headgates are used to control how much water each user receives.

Agricultural Ditches

Farming in dry Colorado would not be possible without irrigation, and most irrigators rely on ditches or pipes for water.

Most ditches divert water directly from a river, creek, or reservoir, or branch off from a larger canal.

Most agricultural ditches in Colorado are owned by the water users themselves. Smaller ditches are often owned in partnership by a handful of users, and maintained by volunteers. Medium and large canals are often owned by the shareholders of a mutual ditch company, led by a board of directors, and managed by paid staff. Mutual ditch companies are non-profit organizations that distribute water to their member-owners. Owners generally pay a fee based on their share of water, which pays for maintenance, upkeep, and staff.

Urban Ditches

As urban areas expand into former farmland, they too make use of ditches. Many municipalities buy agricultural water rights and change their use through the water courts. This water is then sent to municipal water treatment plants prior to delivery to city residents.

Some cities leave ditches in place and use them to deliver untreated water to parks, greenbelts, and golf courses. If portions of the ditch are still used for agriculture, the city can become a co-owner of the ditch, contributing to its upkeep and management in the same way that the former agricultural owners did.

Transfers of water from agricultural use are often controversial. Although owners of agricultural water rights stand to benefit financially, this results in the loss of farmland. Read more about these controversies in the Fall 2012 Headwaters.

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


1750 Humboldt Street, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80218