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Horsetooth Reservoir, seen on May 17, 2022, spans 6.5 miles long with surrounding land available for recreational fishing, boating, camping, diving and more. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project is aimed to transport water from the west to the east slope of Colorado for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Colorado Water Conservation Board on Thursday will debut a new blueprint for how the state can approach dealing with projected water shortages by 2050. 

The Colorado Water Plan updates a document released in 2015. The plan was first drafted at the request of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper after a particularly warm year in 2012. Since then, climate change and other factors have only increased the risk facing Colorado’s water supply. The threat of wildfires exists year-round, the impacts of a two-decade drought have deepened and the state’s population continues to grow. 

The 239-page document notes that the state could experience municipal and industrial water shortages of between 230,000 and 740,000 acre-feet by 2050. Current combined annual municipal and industrial water use is 496,000 acre-feet, according to the plan. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to cover an acre in a foot of water, or about 325,000 gallons.) 

The plan, which will be posted to the CWCB website Thursday afternoon, also notes how conservation efforts can stretch dwindling supplies. Water conservation and efficiency improvements could potentially reduce that future need by 300,000 acre-feet annually, according to the plan.   

“For new people moving to the state, what they may not know about the Colorado water plan is it’s a blueprint for what we do with water in the state of Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

The previous water plan was partly intended to be a public resource and education tool, said CWCB director Becky Mitchell. That’s true of the new plan, too, she said.

“One of the goals of the water plan is to focus on expanding that awareness,” Mitchell said. “We hope that the education leads to engagement.” 

People have been more engaged with discussions about water during the current drought, said Russ Sands, section chief for water supply planning at CWCB. 

“The kind of drought we’re experiencing now is driving a lot of increased attention,” Sands said. “At the same time, I do think there are misconceptions still about how interconnected we all are and how interdependent we all are. It’s not enough just to know that we need to conserve water but that we’re conserving that water to protect the things that we all value like local foods and the environment where we go and recreate.”

Still, gaps in the public’s understanding remain. 

In a recent public awareness survey that queried respondents about who used the most water in Colorado, the most frequent answer was household use, said Matt Lindburg, a managing principal at the environmental firm Brown and Caldwell, a contractor the state hired to help with the water plan update. 

“Agriculture uses the most water,” Lindburg said. “We’ve tried to put the water plan together to include some of that basic technical data, maybe more streamlined than the prior plan to make it more approachable. Hopefully communicate some of these important concepts as far as where your water comes from, who’s using water and how does it all work.” 

Sands said the agriculture community wants to be engaged in discussions about the future of the state’s water supply. 

“Increasingly, I think we’re hearing a lot from the ag community about how can we be that kind of reservoir to help offset,” Sands said. “Our data is showing that if things just play out some of that gap is going to be filled just by ‘buy and dry’ and it would be a much better solution to see where we can kind of scale up collaborative water sharing agreements to meet some of that need. We can plan together for a better future.” 

Lindburg said the 740,000 acre-foot shortage is the high end and that there are other scenarios where that deficit isn’t as large, depending on how much warmer temperatures get, how much growth the state experiences and how effective Coloradans are at conserving water. He also said there are already some projects in place that will help with supply. 

“We talk about a 740,000-acre-foot gap, but we have plans in place, we have projects that we’re pursuing that are going to meet those needs,” Lindburg said. “Maybe not all of it, but things like NISP (Northern Integrated Supply Project) and Gross Reservoir expansion.” 

Lindburg said conservation programs are also critical to meeting future needs. 

The new plan includes four major components — vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning.

“We want this to be a partnership,” Gibbs said. “We want buy-in from everyone in Colorado.” 

Today begins a 90-day public comment period for the new draft, which the state plans to finalize in early 2023. 

Key numbers from the draft of the new Colorado Water Plan.

13.5 million acre-feet: The amount of water that originates in Colorado each year, more than 60% of which is then provided to 19 other states and Mexico. 

5.3 million acre-feet: The average amount of water consumed in Colorado each year. 

4.8 million acre-feet: The amount of water Colorado agriculture uses each year. 

380,000 acre-feet: The amount of water Colorado municipalities use each year. 

8.5 million: Colorado’s population in 2050 as projected by the State Demography Office, which is 5% less than was projected in the 2015 Water Plan.  

$19 billion: The amount of money water-related recreation contributes to Colorado’s economy. 

$47 billion: The amount of money irrigated agriculture contributes to Colorado’s economy. 

173,000: The number of people the agriculture industry employs. 

2: The number of degrees that Colorado has warmed during the past 30 years. Models suggest the state could warm another 2.5 degrees to 5 degrees by mid-century.