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Headwaters Magazine

HW SUM 2015 coveropt

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

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From the Ground Up

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Housing development pushes into farm country in Colorado's Weld County, shown here in 2010.
Photo: John Wark

Colorado’s rapid growth offers a golden opportunity to merge water and land use.

By Allen Best


If Colorado pushes to 8 or 9 million people at mid-century, as demographers say is possible, changes most certainly will occur in how our land is used. How could they not? Today’s population hovers at 5.3 million. While we may not become New York City or San Francisco, a few million more residents means Colorado’s cities, suburbs and country estates will inevitably spill onto today’s farms and pastures.


But how will they spill? And how will Colorado’s existing towns and cities reinvent themselves? Those are among the questions as Colorado peers toward the bottom of its water bucket, trying to calculate how revised land use can help bridge the gap between water supplies and expectations.


“Colorado cannot grow its next five million people the way it did its first five million,” Jim Lochhead, who has lived and worked on both sides of the Continental Divide, now as chief executive of Denver Water, has been known to say. That’s the challenge in a nutshell.


Those next five million people will live in many places. The largest proportionate increases are expected in valleys of the Western Slope. The larger numeric growth, however, will be along the northern Front Range, from Castle Rock to Greeley and Fort Collins, where an additional 2.5 million people—or roughly the existing population of metropolitan Denver-Boulder—could make their homes by 2050, according to high-growth population projections calculated by the Colorado State Demography Office for use in Colorado’s Water Plan.


Not only will that mean new development, but 75 percent of existing housing along the Front Range could be remodeled or replaced by 2050, according to the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. It’s a golden opportunity to rethink the way we grow in Colorado.

Read more: From the Ground Up

Houses or Hay

By Caitlin Coleman

Agricultural water, which accounts for nearly 87 percent of Colorado’s water diversions and many of the state’s oldest water rights, is being targeted for use by other sectors. At the same time, ag lands are becoming urbanized. The 2014 draft of Colorado’s Water Plan estimates that irrigated acres statewide could decrease from 3.5 million today down to to 2.7 million due to both water transfers and growth.

Colorado’s Water Plan, set to be finalized in December 2015, emphasizes the importance of keeping water in agriculture and protecting the industry’s viability. But given Colorado’s growth projections and existing agricultural water shortages, some ask whether it is realistic to prevent dry-up and “save” agriculture everywhere it currently exists.

Even today, water for agriculture comes up short for users in all basins, with major impending threats to groundwater. At current depletion rates, the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies many rural Eastern Plains communities is expected to last less than 50 years, according to a 2002 report by McLaughlin. Likewise, the San Luis Valley’s 6,000 wells are no longer seen as sustainable, and the Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 estimated that as many as 80,000 irrigated acres could be dewatered to protect the water table and senior water rights holders there.

Read more: Houses or Hay

Connecting The Dots

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How Colorado can grow water-smart communities

By Joshua Zaffos

In 2013, elected officials, water providers, planners and other staff from the fast-growing metro Denver communities of Arvada, Aurora, Thornton, Parker and Castle Rock found themselves back in school. During a multi-day land use workshop, taught by Pace University law professors, the local leaders heard about strategies for integrating land use planning and water use, a surprisingly underexplored concept in Colorado. Among the topics covered was how a community could more proactively address water demands and supplies for different segments and end users through its master land use plan.


Consider: Under Colorado law, any town or county with more than 25,000 people must develop a comprehensive or master plan to guide its present and long-term land use. The plan is a roadmap to steer communities through growth and development, and typically includes sections that address housing, transportation, utilities, and, as mandated by state law, recreation and tourism. But water often goes unmentioned or gets short shrift.

Read more: Connecting The Dots

Clean Water Communities

By Caitlin Coleman


Colorado’s growing population and the resulting development has altered hydrology. A summer storm brings torrents of rain pouring over roofs and across sidewalks, flooding city streets and rushing into storm drains before stirring up streams and eroding riverbeds. Though people might be rightfully rejoicing—Colorado needed that soaking rain after all—the ability to maintain water quality is as crucial as the amount that fell.

As new concrete is poured and development is completed, natural groundcover is replaced with impervious surfaces, leading to increased stormwater runoff. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, polluted runoff from urbanized areas is a leading source of water quality impairments to lakes and rivers. Even as higher building density is touted as a way to boost water efficiency, it can be a threat to clean water—but it doesn’t have to be.

Read more: Clean Water Communities

Show Us the Water

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The quest to find a sustainable water supply at Plum Valley
Heights is nearly over. Photo: Matt Staver


How will Colorado ensure its development boom is supplied in a way that’s both sustainable and protects end users?

By Nelson Harvey

On a bright spring morning in 2006, Jack McCormick came in from watering the horses outside his rural home in northwestern Douglas County and found his wife, Lois, perturbed. The McCormicks live on a five-acre lot 20 miles south of Denver, in a 29-home subdivision called Plum Valley Heights. They rely for water on a 700-foot-deep well that taps the Denver Basin Aquifer, a non-renewable underground reservoir whose decline in recent decades has mirrored a boom in the South Metro area’s population. On that morning, Lois was in the shower as Jack filled the horses’ stock tank, but the flow from their well wasn’t strong enough to supply both uses at once. Suddenly, Lois’ shower ran dry.

“I came in and she was pretty upset about it,” McCormick recalls. “Of course, when the horse tank was full, the shower started flowing again, but as I was filling it she lost her water!”

Read more: Show Us the Water

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 WEco has published a variety of articles on different compacts. Browse the selected articles below to learn more about:

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.


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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

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