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HEADWATERS Summer 2017: Data Illuminates New Solutions for Water


  Read about water data, open data, data visualization, water planning and more in the Summer 2017 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Flip through or download the issue here

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By Joshua Zaffos


Four decades ago, water managers and utility employees didn’t have much in the way of data. Water metering to measure homes’ and buildings’ water use was neither required nor common. Water quality monitoring and sampling to safeguard drinking water and environmental health happened along just a small percentage of river miles in Colorado. It’s an era that seems incredibly ancient.


Today Coloradans are digitally connected to everything and to each other. In this new time of big data and nearly incomprehensibly large datasets, every digital process produces and tracks data, while the web-enabled devices around us—from cell phones to smart thermostats—measure and transmit that information.

Through the community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) citizen scientists across the country use rain gauges and other tools to measure precipitation and log the data online. This data then populates a map used by meteorologists, hydrologists and the National Weather Service.
Photo by Henry Reges/Courtesy CoCoRaHS HQ

When it comes to water, water providers, engineers, scientists, boaters and anglers can now collect and access all types of water data, whether to inform conservation plans and river management, or to figure out when to hit the whitewater or expect a big hatch. Water managers make decisions using massive computing power, the internet, software and applications, global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS) and digital maps, and seemingly boundless real-time and long-term datasets. From streamflows to flood risks to water use and water quality within communities and even households, data is now a powerful driver of decision making and water resources management at all levels.   

Read more: Opening the Flow of Water Data


Jason Smith, water commissioner for District 7 of the South Platte Basin, checks a stream gauge on Clear Creek. Smith lowers a drop weight into the water to ground truth the remote reading he receives by computer. Photo by Paula Gillen 


We’re getting better at tracking and altering flows on the fly. What does that mean for the future of water management?



By Nelson Harvey


On an unseasonably warm day in February, Jason Smith stands in a cramped shack in the parking lot of the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Colorado, examining two instruments on the table in front of him. The shack is just feet from the banks of Clear Creek, the stream Smith administers as water commissioner for District 7 of the South Platte Basin. Clear Creek flows from the Eisenhower Tunnel near the Continental Divide all the way to the confluence of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 in Denver. Along with Coors, the creek’s major water users include a smattering of agricultural producers and cities like Golden, Lakewood, Thornton, Northglenn and Arvada.


Both instruments in front of Smith are water gauges, and by the looks of them they could have been produced within a decade of each other. Yet when it comes to efficiency, the two devices are light-years apart. On the left is a chart recorder, which uses an inked needle connected to a float in a stilling well below to record changes in the creek’s water level on a piece of graph paper. Powering it on requires winding a knob on the front, and although this particular recorder is out of commission, it has been kept in place for posterity. On the right, by contrast, is a Sutron data logger, a small blue metal box that takes digital water level readings every 15 minutes from the float in the water beneath it and transmits those to a modem mounted on the wall. The modem beams readings out once an hour over the cellular network, and they are picked up on a state database viewable by anyone with an internet connection.


Read more: Driven By Data

Governor Hickenlooper charged Colorado with developing a hub for water data at the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention in January 2017. Photo by Richard Myrup, Red Rocky Community College/Courtesy Western Resource Advocates


By Gloria Dickie


In late January 2017, Governor John Hickenlooper stood in front of the crowd that had gathered in Denver for the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention to address an issue that had been slowly bubbling to the surface among the state’s water leaders and stakeholders.



“We certainly have a wealth of water data now—more than we’ve ever had,” he began. “We’re very supportive of having a hub for water data … a nexus, a place where you know you can get the data. I’m a firm believer that getting more information into the hands of decision makers, the people who are going to use it, creates innovation, new ideas, and better solutions.”


To many, water data is where energy data was 40 years ago. At that time, it took the perceived petroleum shortages of the 1970s—and the resulting energy crisis—to push stakeholders to start paying attention to energy-use data. With water now facing a similar future, and immersed in a fast-growing data-sharing landscape, Colorado water planners and engineers are working to make data access and collection a higher priority.  


This is showing up at Colorado’s lead water policy and protection agency. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) embarked this past winter on its first update of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) since 2010, when Dropbox was still in its infancy and Google Drive was two years away from launching. With a world of new technology at their fingertips, CWCB employees hope the new update will create a positive downstream effect for water users. The update’s final report is expected in early 2018.

Read more: Mapping Colorado's Water Future

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