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Water Planning & Distribution

Water Planning & Distribution

Colorado's Water Users

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


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Who uses water?

How Coloradans use and consume water is a reflection of our climate, landscape, and changing social values. Under Colorado water law, in order to claim a water right and divert water, the user must put the water to beneficial use. Colorado broadly defines beneficial use as a lawful appropriation that employs reasonably efficient practices to place water to use.

Below are the top types of water use in Colorado:

Agricultural Use

Agricultural production of food and fiber diverts close to 86% of Colorado’s deliverable water.

With the exception of dryland wheat, most of Colorado’s agriculture and green industry (nursery and greenhouse) production requires irrigation to generate the desired yields and products. To learn more about agricultural use of water, check out the Fall 2012 Headwaters.

81% of irrigation water is usually supplied by rivers, and 19% by aquifers.

Municipal Use

Colorado’s cities and towns use about 6-7% of Colorado’s water.

In 2000, 87% of Colorado’s population was served predominantly by municipal utilities, water and sanitation districts and rural water districts. (Check out the Winter 2013 Headwaters to learn more about them.) Residential use isn’t just for drinking, dishes, laundry, and showers – during Colorado’s warm, dry summers, lawns, gardens, and trees consume as much as 70% of the water delivered to residences.

94% of public supply comes from rivers, and 6% from aquifers.

Industrial Use

Businesses and industries use approximately 2% of Colorado’s water.

Industrial users frequently rely on municipal water systems. For example, 18-36% of municipal deliveries in Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs are used for commercial or industrial purposes. Roughly half of this water is used for cooling, heating, and indoor plumbing. Landscape irrigation, manufacturing, and miscellaneous uses make up the other half. Check out the Fall 2013 issue of Headwaters to learn more about the water-energy nexus.

80% of industrial water comes from rivers, and 20% from aquifers.

Environmental Use

Approximately 3% of Colorado’s water is used for recreation, fisheries, and in-stream flows – uses that typically leave water in the rivers.

Not all of Colorado’s water can be consumed. Some of it must be left in the environment, to sustain Colorado’s 22 million acres of forest and more than 30 million acres of rangeland. This water also allows fish and wildlife, including several endangered species, to thrive. Many environmental uses are ensured by the Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program, overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). This program is intended to preserve the natural environment by maintaining minimum flows in streams and minimum levels in lakes.

Interstate Compacts

Environmental uses aside, Coloradans still cannot consume 100% of river water – some of it must be allowed to flow downstream to other states, for their use. Learn more about the specific rules that govern Colorado’s interstate compacts.

Water Planning and Distribution

Water makes a long journey from its source to your faucet. Its seemingly effortless appearance is the result of great effort, expense, and management, often through a network of diversions, storage, infrastructure, and treatment facilities – but all this comes at a cost.

For most people, the question, “Where does your water come from?” has a simple answer: “From the tap.” It seems hard to believe that the water for your morning shower may have traveled more than 200 miles, from a melting snowbank to a high mountain reservoir, through tunnels, treatment plants, and pipes. Or it may have been pumped from 2,500 feet below the earth’s surface, tapping ancient water molecules that made their way into these aquifers during the Stone Age.

Water comes to us initially from the atmosphere as rain or snow. Colorado’s dry climate means we get more of the latter than the former. Two natural sources collect this moisture: rivers (surface water) and underground aquifers (groundwater). Rain and snow recharge both rivers and shallow groundwater aquifers with an annual supply of water. Deeper aquifers are also recharged, but through different flow paths and at much slower rates.

Without human intervention, a large percentage of water would remain underground or flow downstream in rivers toward the ocean. To meet human needs, a great deal of infrastructure has been constructed to divert, collect, convey, and treat water, making it available for many different users.


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


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Transporting Water

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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 Treatment

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Making Water Safe to Use

We typically take clean water for granted. But it is only in the last 100-150 years that we discovered how essential pure water is, especially in the role of preventing disease.

Water treatment occurs before and after use. Water treatment plants process water for domestic or industrial use, and wastewater treatment plants process wastewater before it is discharged back into streams.

Drinking Water Treatment Plants

As a headwaters state, Colorado is fortunate to draw water from upstream of most other users, providing us with high-quality water. Still, metals and minerals may need to be removed, as well as organics and other natural impurities.

Drinking water treatment plants use a series of processes to remove suspended material from raw water. These processes might be chemical, physical, or biological. Chlorine, for example, is typically used as a disinfectant. Treatment aims to remove pathogenic microbes such as bacteria, viruses, and giardia.

Treated water must comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), which insures that drinking water meets specific standards. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) adopts, implements, and enforces the standards set by federal law.

Water treatment plants vary in size. Some treat water for a few homes only, while others are massive facilities that treat millions of gallons each day.

Wastewater Treatment Plants

Wastewater is usually a combination of graywater (wash, unused and rinsewater) and raw sewage. At wastewater treatment plants, solid waste, grease, and oils are separated from water. The solid waste becomes treated biosolids, suitable for landscaping and agricultural uses. The water is cleaned using a combination of aeration, microorganisms, gravity, and a variety of chemicals. This water must meet certain standards before it be returned to waterways. Wastewater treatment plants are regulated by state and federal clean water acts.


Stormwater is a relative newcomer in the water treatment world. Stormwater runoff from industrial sources, municipal storm drains, and construction sites can carry many pollutants. Heavy rainfall on sidewalks and parking lots can carry oil from cars and waste from pets into waterways. In Colorado, stormwater is typically managed but not treated.

Infrastructure Makes It All Possible

Transferring water from its source to treatment plants, from treatment plants to users, and from users to wastewater treatment plants requires a massive infrastructure. Pipes, valves, pumps, storage tanks, drains, and sewer lines must all be maintained and monitored. Infrastructure maintenance accounts for a significant portion of a customer’s water bill.

Investigate Your Drinking Water

Large water utilities publish a “Water Quality Annual Report” or “Consumer Confidence Report” each year in compliance with federal law. These reports outline the results of regular water testing and describe the drinking water sources used. Contact smaller providers to request their water quality information.

Additional Resources

Learn more about water treatment and infrastructure in the Winter 2013 Headwaters magazine and the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection.

Keep It Clean Partnership: prevent stormwater pollution

Colorado Stormwater Council: http://www.coloradostormwatercouncil.org/

Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority: http://www.semswa.org/

Denver Water’s water quality reports: http://www.denverwater.org/WaterQuality/QualityReports/

Colorado Springs Utilities water quality reports: https://www.csu.org/pages/water-quality-b.aspx

Ute Water Conservancy’s water quality reports: http://www.utewater.org/water_quality.html

Water Storage

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Meeting water needs in a dry state

As a naturally dry state, Colorado faces a huge challenge in providing water year-round to its users.

Colorado’s mountains provide a natural source of water storage – until spring. Accumulated snowpack melts and runs out of the state very quickly, and dry conditions during most of the year produce little water in rivers during the summer and winter. Historically, many of Colorado’s rivers dried up for extended stretches during late summer and early fall, including the South Platte and the Arkansas.

If water doesn’t fall consistently year-round, then it must be captured in plentiful times and stored for dry times.


Coloradans have used reservoirs to store water since ancient times – the Ancestral Puebloans built reservoirs at Mesa Verde. Farmers on the eastern plains used reservoirs to supply irrigation water for their farms. Today, water in reservoirs is used for multiple beneficial uses, including municipal and industrial use, irrigation, interstate water delivery obligations, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation. Dams and reservoirs can also generate hydroelectric power.

Reservoirs alter the natural flow of rivers. Humans can engineer these flows, reducing them during floods or increasing them during dry conditions. These altered flows, however, also affect water quality, wildlife habitat, and natural stream dynamics.

Can we store water without reservoirs?

Reservoirs are essential for Colorado. They are, however, expensive to build and often controversial, especially because of their environmental impacts. As an alternative, some communities have chosen to store their water underground, pumping water into aquifers. This saves on the space for above-ground storage and reduces water loss due to evaporation. This water must be pumped back up to the surface, however, which takes time and energy.

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