Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Text Size

Site Search

Headwaters Magazine

 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 the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

Colorado’s Water Plan, THEN: How we got here

By Nelson Harvey

Peter Binney directed Aurora Water between 2002 and 2009, as the utility battled through extended drought—and shored up for future episodes--with innovative solutions like the Prairie Waters state-of-the-art water reuse treatment plant. Binney recently visited with engineers at the plant, which opened in 2010 and bears his name. 

Peter Binney remembers the precise moment when the bad news hit. It was the early summer of 2002, and Colorado was in the throes of the worst drought in more than a century. By fall, most Coloradans would feel the effects of the disaster: Crops would be scorched in fields from the South Platte Basin to the San Luis Valley, rafting and fishing guides on the Western Slope would lose income due to low flows, and water users in downtown Denver would see sharp rate hikes and usage restrictions.

In June, though, Binney, with only a few months under his belt as the new director of Aurora Water, was still wondering how much Rocky Mountain snowmelt Aurora could count on to fill its reservoirs that year. He was on his way to Pueblo for a meeting when Aurora’s water supply manager called him with the answer. “It was a lightning bolt,” remembers Binney, who left Aurora Water in 2008 and is now head of sustainable infrastructure at the engineering firm Merrick and Co., a consultant to The Nature Conservancy on water reuse issues, and a member of the Metro Basin Roundtable. “I knew the number was going to be low, but I had no idea it would be lower than theoretically possible.” Aurora, Binney’s water manager said, was likely to get just 8,000 acre-feet of water for reservoir storage in 2002, compared to 70,000 acre-feet in a typical year. The city would be forced to dramatically draw down its reservoirs to survive the summer, and if the drought didn’t lift in 2003, Aurora could run out of water entirely.

After the initial shock, Binney and his colleagues sprang into action. In the ensuing months they raised water rates, instituted outdoor watering restrictions, and lined up emergency water supplies. Mother nature granted a reprieve of her own on March 18, 2003, when she graced the Denver metro area with a whopping 30-plus inches of snow in a storm that put the region on the road to recovery. Still, the drought of 2002 had thoroughly shaken water managers by showing them—for the first time in recent memory—the true limits of their water supplies.

“We realized that Aurora’s water portfolio was very vulnerable to weather conditions, and it didn’t have the capacity to weather the storm—or the lack of a storm,” Binney says. “The drought gave us an absolute display of what’s going to happen if Colorado’s water runs out. Call it the canary in the coal mine, if you will.”

Read more: Colorado’s Water Plan, THEN: How we got here

Colorado’s Water Plan, NOW: Where We Landed at the Close of 2014

For more on Colorado's Water Plan, listen to our Connecting the Drops statewide call-in show, produce in partnership between the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

By Nelson Harvey

One evening last fall, Becky Mitchell’s neighbor caught her in the driveway and posed a question that any concerned, curious and perhaps slightly nosy neighbor might ask: “You seem awfully busy, why have you been gone so much lately?”

Mitchell, who is the head of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), explained that she’d been supervising a team of 10 staffers charged with the rather Herculean task of assembling and drafting Colorado’s first official state water plan. The overarching goal: to bridge an anticipated and potentially catastrophic water gap of roughly 500,000 acre-feet, or 163 billion gallons, per year that could surface by mid-century if state demographers’ forecasts are borne out.

Looking back on that driveway encounter, Mitchell believes she could have conveyed the importance of her work on a more personal level. “I could have said to my neighbor, who loves gardening, that hopefully in 25 years she’ll have the same Colorado she has now,” Mitchell says. “She’ll be able to keep working in her garden, rafting, skiing. To be honest, I’m hoping that my neighbor doesn’t even notice the impact of the water plan, because she lives in the same Colorado or better.”

Read more: Colorado’s Water Plan, NOW: Where We Landed at the Close of 2014

Reaching Coloradans for Colorado's Water Plan

For more on public engagement around Colorado's Water Plan and to hear voices from the story, listen to our Connecting the Drops audio coverage, produced for a partnership between CFWE and Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

By Justin Patrick

Colorado’s Water Plan is touted as a democratic, self-actualized document produced “by Coloradans, for Coloradans.” That ideal, of course, can only be reached with one key ingredient: Coloradans. Widespread participation ought to ensure the many different perspectives about what should—or should not—be included in the new state water plan are represented. Not only did producing the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan rely on the work of many existing stakeholders, but public input, say the plan’s authors, has been and will remain essential to refining a water plan that reflects Colorado residents’ many values.

Education and outreach efforts leading up to the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan have been extensive to date. Some go back as far as 2005, before the plan was even conceived, when official mechanisms like the Public Education, Participation, and Outreach workgroup (PEPO) of the Interbasin Compact Committee were established solely to foster public engagement around the work of the state’s basin roundtables. Other efforts have been more recent, as the plan has moved—and continues moving—from conception to draft phase to finalization.

Read more: Reaching Coloradans for Colorado's Water Plan

Colorado's Water Plan, NEXT: Where we need to go further

By Nelson Harvey

Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund
is responsible for overseeing development of Colorado's
Water Plan.

When the final draft of Colorado’s Water Plan lands with a thump on the governor’s desk at the end of 2015—or, more likely, when it appears with a cheerful ping in his email inbox—it will be the product of what James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), calls “the largest civic engagement project in Colorado.” That project, the statewide system of grassroots basin roundtables established by the 2005 Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, has played a pivotal role in the creation of the water plan, but despite the hundreds of meetings held, thousands of hours worked, and tens of thousands of pages reviewed, the true test of the plan lies ahead.

That test is whether state officials, roundtable members, lawmakers and water providers can successfully implement the plan, and whether they can leverage its findings and recommendations to stave off a statewide water supply reckoning in the decades to come. The alternative outcome involves the plan—which is, after all, a non-enforceable advisory document—dying a quiet death on the shelf of a government office. Such a fate seems unlikely given the outpouring of time and public input that has gone into the effort so far, but implementing it successfully will still require action and cooperation from all corners of the water community. What’s more, it could require improvements to the laws and regulations, planning and permitting processes, and funding mechanisms that affect building new water projects and conserving, sharing and reusing Colorado’s water.

Read more: Colorado's Water Plan, NEXT: Where we need to go further

Other State Approaches to Water Planning

By Jayla Poppleton

Water Planning in the USA:All light orange states have
a comprehensive state water 
plan in place, dark orange
states have a state water plan 
in development. 


In Texas, no water project can get a permit if it isn’t in the state water plan. In California, where an expressed goal of the state plan is to guide investments in water innovation and infrastructure, the plan essentially sets up for justifying—or not—ballot initiatives. Arizona’s plan, referred to as its strategic vision, is promoted as a comprehensive supply and demand analysis and framework to guide water planning efforts as far as 100 years out. New Mexico uses components of its water plan—statements of water need from its 16 regional plans—to inform litigation and negotiations with Texas over the Rio Grande Compact.

With the development of Colorado’s Water Plan, Colorado becomes one of the last western states to have a state plan for water, but it isn’t a replica of what anyone else has done. “Two years ago, Colorado Water Congress had a number of people in to represent what other state’s plans look like,” recalls John Stulp, special water policy advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper. “The person from Texas told us, ‘Whatever you do, don’t copy ours. Make sure it’s a Colorado water plan. It needs to be done by Coloradans for your Colorado needs.’”

The structures of American states’ water planning run the gamut from more top-down approaches, such as those in California and the Dakotas, to grassroots, locally driven processes that blow even Colorado out of the water—but don’t necessarily make them more effective—like that of Washington, where 34 watershed planning units contribute to the plan, compared with Colorado’s nine basin roundtables. The plans vary accordingly with each state’s water supply picture, past experience, and legal structure.

In Colorado, where water rights are treated as private property rights, the grassroots process of state water planning that has been conducted through partnership with the basin roundtables is inherently needed. For other states, a more top-down approach works. Either way, there’s a balance to be struck between too much command and control and too much parochialism, where individuals are building fences around their resources.

Read more: Other State Approaches to Water Planning

CFWE Compacts Resources

Guide to Interstate Compacts explore how our water-sharing compact agreements were first created, how they succeed and fail, and how they have fostered enduring relationships among bordering states.Read or purchase the Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Interstate Compacts.

2ndeditioncoversmallCompact Articles Over time CFWE has published a variety of articles on different compacts. Browse the selected articles below to learn more about:

CFWE Water History Resources

Guide to Colorado's Water Heritage Explore how water shaped Colorado history, culture and identity. Read the water heritage guide.

water heritage guide

Guide to Colorado's Environmental Era Continue the journey through time to explore more recent years and see how the environmental movement has shaped Colorado's culture, communities and landscapes. Read, download, or purchase the environmental era guide.


RiverRestoration Coloradon Troutweb

Publication of Headwaters magazine is made possible by the generous support of sponsors and advertisers. We would like to extend our appreciation and thanks to the following sponsors: 

CWCB-logo-RGB 1





 Spencer Fane Logo

 City Logo WC



Become a Member or Make a Donation

Support for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education is tax-deductible and provides numerous benefits, including discounts on publications and event registrations. Your membership supports development of new publications, outreach efforts across the state, and critical operational needs.

CO River Report & Webinar


On April 14, CFWE, in partnership with CoBank, hosted a webinar "Managing the Colorado River in the 21st Century." Access a recording of the webinar here or download a PDF of the presentations here.


A report on the Colorado River Basin released in partnership between CFWE and CoBank's Knowledge Exchange Division is available to read and download here