Front Range water utilities join expanded Colorado River Basin conservation pledge
Colorado’s drought-stricken Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison is pictured on May 30, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Five municipal utilities that provide water to the most densely populated areas along Colorado’s Front Range on Wednesday joined their counterparts from across the Colorado River Basin in promising to increase their water conservation efforts.
In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sent Aug. 24, the utilities — Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo Water and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District — wrote that “there is more we can and must accomplish” to reduce demand for water within their service areas.
While the agreement does not quantify an overall reduction goal, it includes a pledge to reduce non-functional turf grass by 30%, as well as broader commitments to expanding efficiency programs and increasing collaboration across the region. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority are also signatories to the letter and an associated memorandum of understanding.
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In the last two decades, a “megadrought” fueled by climate change has reduced water flows across the Colorado River Basin by roughly 20%, forcing an escalating series of emergency cuts and high-stakes negotiations over the river’s future. Spanning a region than includes seven states and the country of Mexico, the Colorado River and its tributaries supply drinking water to more than 40 million people across the southwestern U.S.
“Climate change and overuse of the Colorado River have put us squarely within the crisis we long saw coming,” Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, said in a press release. “The bottom line now: We all need to work on solutions, no matter our individual impacts on river flows.”
About half of the water supplied to Denver Water’s 1.5 million customers comes from the Colorado River Basin on the west side of the Continental Divide, where 80% of the state’s annual precipitation falls. Other major “transbasin” diversions include the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which uses a system of reservoirs and tunnels to divert about 220,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to Fort Collins and other cities on the northeast plains.
Earlier this week, Aurora became the latest Front Range municipality to enact a program aimed at reducing water use, prohibiting the installation of “cool-weather” turf grasses on golf courses and new home developments.
“We’re doing what needs to be done to ensure a reliable water supply for our community in unpredictable times and we challenge other municipalities to do the same,” Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown said in a statement.
Municipal and industrial users account for only about 7% of Colorado’s total annual water consumption. Almost all of the rest — nearly 90% — is used by agricultural producers to irrigate crops and to feed and water livestock.
Amid worsening drought conditions in the West, federal officials this month announced new emergency cuts that will impact users in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River system, which includes California, Arizona and Nevada. The seven states that make up the Colorado River Compact are negotiating a new agreement governing the use of the river’s water ahead of the expiration of the current Drought Contingency Plan in 2026.
Colorado leaders have resisted calls to cut back sharply on water use in the Upper Basin, where less of the system’s water is used and where voluntary conservation efforts have been more successful. Colorado’s municipal water providers say they’ll continue to expand those efforts.
“While we have long been a conservation leader, Denver Water has consistently said it is prepared to do even more,” Lochhead said. “The commitments contained in this agreement reflect our readiness to take further important steps to keep more water in the Colorado River Basin.”
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