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Are you interested in Colorado water issues but don't know where to start? Do you want to know how much water is available or the amount we'll need as the state grows?  Do you want to explore the ways in which we use water to grow food in Colorado? Would you like to learn about planting a Xeriscape garden or to plan a trip to explore Colorado's water?

Then Take the Plunge into the Winter 2012 edition of Headwaters to learn about Colorado's many exciting water issues and the interesting characters who work with water. Explore these topics and more by reading featured articles below or viewing the online version of Headwaters here.


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How Precious Is Our Water?

By Josh McDaniel

Western ColoradoDeep in western Colorado, the Grand Valley is an emerald oasis of irrigated land surrounded by the starkness of the high desert. Two major rivers, the Colorado and the Gunnison, meet in the valley’s heart, near downtown Grand Junction. The network of irrigation canals that fan out from these rivers, distributing water to the valley’s farms and ranches, are what makes these fields unnaturally, welcomingly green.In the midst of this lush desert lies the city of Grand Junction, one of western Colorado’s largest and fastest growing communities. There, Greg Trainor oversees the dirty jobs that keep his city running smoothly—sewage treatment, trash collection, road repair. For the most part mild-mannered and serious, his eyes light up when he talks about a fourth aspect of his job—providing the one thing that no one in town can live without. Water.

“There is nothing that defines the Grand Valley as much as the presence or absence of water,” says Trainor. “Irrigation has created our own fertile crescent.” And fertile it is.

From the peach orchards and vineyards of the town of Palisade to the cattle ranches of Loma out toward the Utah border, the Grand Valley is a marvel of desert
agricultural production. Yet, there is concern for the future. “Water challenges your thinking. There is always uncertainty, and when [water] isn’t there, it is such a sharp-edged problem for the community,” says Trainor. For water, there really is no substitute.

The concerns of water users and managers in the Grand Valley represent a microcosm of every river basin in the state—a growing population, the ever-lingering threat of drought, the feasibility and wisdom of more transmountain diversions (taking water from the West Slope to the Front Range), the sustainability of agriculture, the role of water conservation, and the need to maintain water in streams for recreation and ecosystem health, explains Trainor. Tough decisions lie ahead.

Read more: How Precious Is Our Water?

Water For All

Coloradans Tackle the Global Water Crisis

By Erin McIntyre

Imagine life without your toilet. The picture, both at home and in the surrounding community, gets messy quick. Or, perhaps there is no faucet to turn, whereby, with little
effort of your own, safe water pours forth from underground pipes that connect to a water treatment plant.

Now, imagine if all the children under five years old in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Kansas died from diarrhea. Reality strikes. An equivalent number of children—approximately 1.5 million—younger than five do, in fact, perish this way annually around the world. This silent threat steals the breath of more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. A lack of access to clean water and sanitation, including toilets and wastewater treatment, is the root cause of this problem.

The absence of clean water is also linked to poverty and lack of education and opportunity. Diseases contracted from drinking dirty water either kill people, or make them too sick to work or go to school. And the burden of hauling water over long distances—the United Nations estimates an average of 6 kilometers per day in poor communities—is often shouldered by women and girls, who likewise lose the opportunity to earn an income or an education.

The discrepancy between the water “haves” and “have-nots” has grown so glaring that in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to safe drinking water and sanitation a basic human right, making it a global priority to assist the nearly 900 million people estimated to be without safe drinking water and 2.6 billion without access to sanitation.

Some Colorado organizations and businesses are already working in that direction.



Read more: Water For All

Water For Food

By Joshua Zaffos

Bob Sakata was 20 years old when he began farming 40 humble acres on the outskirts of Brighton. Sixty-six years later, Sakata Farms covers 3,000 acres and is one of the 100 largest vegetable producers in the country. Sakata still works his fields of broccoli, sweet corn and onions with his son, Robert, and other family members. Despite his success, he has never forgotten his younger days growing up on a truck-garden farm in California and his father’s constant worries over water.

"When I came here, I saw the abundance of water from the Rocky Mountains and some wells being drilled," Sakata recalls, "and I thought it was the ideal place to start growing vegetables."

Many other farmers have also seized the opportunity, joining Sakata in the surrounding area of the South Platte River Basin, which begins in the Rocky Mountains and fans outward to envelop the city of Denver and the expansive plains to the east. In the postwar era, this northeastern part of the state has boomed with fields of sugar beets, corn, potatoes and barley. Snowmelt flowing from the mountains is diverted and stored to irrigate fields that otherwise would not flourish in the arid climate. The vast groundwater aquifer has also been tapped extensively through wells, additionally buffering water supplies. "That's what made northern Colorado a real oasis in production of crops," Sakata says.

This unlikely oasis, in fact, spreads across the state, well beyond the vegetable farms and sugar beet fields of the South Platte Basin to the fruit orchards and sweet corn fields on the other side of the Rockies, as well as the pastures and cattle of the northwest, the potato farms in the south, and the melon patches in the southeast. These working farmlands produce a bounty that feeds millions in Colorado and around the world. They also play a vital role in providing open space and wildlife habitat, which, along with agriculture itself, defines much of Colorado's character. Through its many ups and downs, the agricultural industry has always depended on that one worrisome aspect— water.

Farms and ranches cover 32 million acres in Colorado, nearly half the state. Just under 10 percent of that land is irrigated, boosting productivity and providing a form of crop insurance. Without irrigation, farmers risk the possibility of drought induced crop failure, opening the door for substantial financial losses. But irrigation water serves as a buffer against the variability of the state's natural rainfall.

The water diverted from rivers and pumped from the ground to provide that buffer accounts for 86 percent of the state's available water. Agriculture's dominant share not only represents the industry's historical importance, but also makes it an obvious target for planners and developers considering future growth. Since the 1970s, burgeoning cities in Colorado have bolstered their water supplies by buying up irrigators' water rights and, in the process, drying up farmland. Forecasts indicate the growth trends are likely to continue and even increase, along with the demand for urban water supplies.

Read more: Water For Food

How Big Is Your Water Footprint?

Keeping tabs on your tap is just the first step in determining your impact on global water supplies

By Rebecca L. Olgeirson

How much water does it take to write a story for Headwaters magazine?

The Water Footprint Network estimates that brewing a single cup of coffee requires 37 gallons
of water, when the full costs of production and transport are factored in. Usually it takes two cups of coffee to get the creative juices flowing; with seven days in front of the computer, that’s already more than 500 gallons before delivering a first draft.

Taking into account the water needed to build the computer, power and heat the home office, grow the trees to make the paper, drill the gas to shuttle the car to interviews, and ultimately, to produce the ink and run the printing presses, this single 1,200-word story could easily use more than 10,000 gallons of water.

“It’s time to start thinking about the water embedded in a product,” says Amelia Nuding, water/energy analyst at Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. “It’s not something most consumers think about in daily life.”

Much like the more established notion of a carbon footprint, a water footprint is less an exact science and more a conservation tool aimed at increasing consumer awareness. Developed in 2002 by Arjen Hoekstra at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, water footprinting was designed to trace the direct and indirect use of water with the intent of comparing regions across the globe.

Technically, the equation calculates two indirect water usage components—agricultural and industrial—and adds the total to the direct water consumption of a nation. Unsurprisingly, China, India and the United States round out the world’s largest water footprints, accounting for about 39 percent of the planet’s consumption, according to the Water Footprint Network, a Finland-based organization directed by Hoekstra.

Read more: How Big Is Your Water Footprint?

Changing Values, Changing Landscapes

By Jerd Smith


In 2002, Colorado was rocked by a searing, record-breaking drought. The state, whose mountains had witnessed endless winter snows and huge spring melts for decades,
went dry. Water was rationed. Cars weren’t washed. Lawns turned brown. Corn and alfalfa fields burned up.

In earlier droughts—in the late 1800s, the 1930s, the 1950s—Colorado was a sparsely populated place. Water decisions were made by a relatively small group of people: farmers, water utilities and large oil and mining companies, most of whom had staked their claims to the water decades ago. Few in the general public knew much about the intricate system of streams and irrigation ditches that funneled snowmelt from the mountains to the plains to the rivers that would eventually carry it far beyond our borders, to Los Angeles, El Paso, St. Louis and New Orleans.

Fewer still knew much about Colorado’s historical prior appropriation doctrine, a legal platform that dates back to the days of the gold rush. It was designed to allocate a
scarce resource fairly and to prevent speculators from hoarding water. The doctrine says those with the oldest water rights have the first priority to use the water in a stream and that only those who can put it to beneficial use can divert it from streams or place it in storage. Hard-fought battles in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to expand the legal definition of beneficial use so that water could be kept in the stream for fish, kayak courses and riparian, or streamside, habitat were also known to only a handful of people.

Read more: Changing Values, Changing Landscapes

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