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Colorado addressing future water shortage issues

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By 2040, Colorado is expected to grow to 8 million people, which is nearly a 200 percent increase in population. 

At the current rate of usage, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture said the state will need an additional 190,000 to 630,000 acre-feet of water to meet the needs of municipal and industrial users by 2050. At the high end, that’s more than twice the amount of water annually supplied by Colorado’s largest water utility, Denver Water.

“Where will this water come from?” Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar questioned. “Is it possible to meet this demand?” 

Global issue

Although Salazar said there are measures that can be taken to address the issue, his concern is how long it will take to get all parties to agree to a solution. 

When Brisbane, Australia was facing a similar dilemma, measures were taken to reduce water usage to a mere 36 gallons per person per day, compared with an average of 98 gallons per person per day in the United States and 170 gallons per person per day in Colorado. 

“They recognized they needed mandated water conservation practices in Australia,” Salazar said, “so the legislature and government forced them to do that.” 

They also recognized the benefits of using surface and ground water in balance, which is something that is not currently being done in Colorado. 

Agriculture impacted

Unless there is a change in the state, Salazar said people are going to continue to take water away from agriculture. 

“Up to now, agriculture has made water available at a very inexpensive rate,” he said. 

As a result, the state lost 7.4 million acres of farm and ranchland between 1950 and 2010. 

“If they continue to target agriculture land for water, 3 million more acres may be lost in the next 10 years, which is the equivalent of 3,500 average size farms and ranches,” he said. “Transferring water to meet growing demand in urban areas could also dry up an additional 500,000 to 700,000 irrigated acres by 2050.” 

Areas with high numbers of agriculture producers, like the western slope and San Luis Valley, are constantly fighting to save their water, Salazar said. 

“In the San Luis Valley, we spend a considerable amount of money in litigation against water speculators trying to move water from agriculture to urban areas,” he explained. 

Developing solutions

To address the issue, Salazar said the state is developing some solutions. 

Colorado Governor Hickenlooper signed a bill last year allowing the state more authority to manage underground reservoirs, as well as above-ground storage. This bill will help the state develop ways to better manage their water during times of surplus, such as in 2011, when 400,000 acre feet of water went downstream to Nebraska, and the state didn’t receive credit for it. 

“This bill will enable us to study ways to store it and use it during drought years like last year,” he said. 


A growing concern is how the state will supply enough food to feed 3 million more people with less water and land. 

One solution is by stretching existing water supplies by using water efficiencies that have been developed and have made the state among the most efficient. 

“Irrigation efficiency is going to drive food production systems in Colorado. We were one of the first to install center pivot irrigation in our area,” Salazar said, “and it improved our irrigation efficiency 70 percent compared to what we were doing before.”


Salazar also sees growth on the Front Range expanding outward and gobbling up good, productive farmland. 

“It is a shame because we are not using land-use planning the way it should be used,” he said. “We could house 3 million new inhabitants in Colorado if we would plan upwards. If we would build up instead of out and put people in condominiums or apartment buildings, we could reduce water consumption for those people by 80 percent.”

Technology role

“We also need to invest in new technology where every water molecule is reused,” he said. 

On the space station, condensation and even sweat from the body is recycled and reused. 

“Water should never be a restriction of growth,” he said. “We have the technology to use water over and over again to infinity.”

“The only time it is truly gone is when it is used consumptively for things like watering golf courses and lawns. If it is used for things like dishes, it can be put through a filtration system where it can become good quality drinking water once again,” he said.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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