The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Competitive Council and the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation submitted a formal comment on the Colorado Water Plan on behalf of Colorado’s business community. Find the letter here.

Issue and need:

The importance of water – especially for western states as Colorado – cannot be understated.

Colorado is a headwater state from which water flows to nine other states (KS, NE, TX, WY, UT, NM, NV, CA, AZ) and the country of Mexico. We are bound by interstate compacts, U.S. Supreme Court decrees and an international treaty, which define the use and management of water in our state. Approximately two thirds of the water originating in Colorado must flow out of the state. And even that amount may not be enough to power downstream economies.

Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050 according to the State Demographer and most of the growth is expected to be along the Front Range urban corridor. Currently, 80 percent of the people in Colorado live in the Front Range where only about 20 percent of the water is located. Almost 75 percent of the State’s GDP comes from ten counties on the Front Range. Residential and industrial uses account for approximately 15 percent of Colorado’s water use. The vast majority of our water originates on the western slope. Yet diverting this water from the west slope to the Front Range is politically divisive and environmentally challenging.

Colorado has an insufficient amount of water storage capacity to meet its future needs. During years with above average snowfall, we are often unable to capture and store the “extra” water. This problem will be affected and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of a changing climate.

Statewide, about 80 to 85 percent of our annual water use is attributable to agricultural production. The South Platte basin is by far the greatest producer of agricultural products in the state, and is inextricably linked with the Front Range urban economy through food production and processing. Moreover, opportunities for producing significant amounts of transferable water for municipal and industrial (M&I) uses through agricultural water conservation measures are limited by significant physical, legal and economic factors.


Water in Colorado is a scarce resource that at the same time is vital to our economic development and way of life. Supreme Court Justice Hobbs says the story of Colorado water law is one of adaptation and change. Territorial law that started out to promote mining and agricultural irrigation has turned into state law that serves a multitude of human and environmental needs.

Early on in Colorado’s history, water laws were enacted that took the broadest possible approach towards settler’s rights. Eventually these were challenged in front of the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that water could be diverted from a stream, and ditches could be built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use. “In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels.” The court added that Colorado law broke away entirely from the water law framework followed in many other areas of the country, known as the Riparian Doctrine. Over time, these founding legal principles have evolved into a framework of water law known as the Colorado Doctrine (a/k/a the prior appropriation doctrine).

The prior appropriation doctrine is mandated by Colorado’s Constitution and regulates the use of surface water in rivers as well as groundwater connected to the river basins. In times of short supply, water users with earlier water rights decrees (senior rights) can fill their water needs before others (junior rights). The prior appropriation system also lays out an orderly procedure so that state officials can distribute water according to decreed water right priority dates, shutting off junior rights as needed to satisfy senior rights.

Finally, there are two basic types of prior appropriation water rights: direct flow rights and storage rights. The first takes water directly from a stream to its place of use. The second puts water into a reservoir for later use.

The Chamber and the Colorado Competitive Council have been working in partnership with the Governor’s office, Accelerate Colorado and a number of local chambers of commerce to hold water briefings across the state and to develop a set of water principles from the business community that will be delivered to the governor with a white paper to be included in the state’s water plan. We have held briefings in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Lone Tree, Denver, Grand Junction and Vail. Two more meetings are planned for the early fall in Fort Morgan and Weld County. The briefings provide business people a broad perspective of the economic power of water for Colorado, the strengths and weaknesses of the local water systems and a brief presentation on how the state water planning process is developing.


The biggest challenges to Colorado’s water situation are as follows:

  • Finding a single solution to address the water challenges in Colorado is not possible. And, some of the solutions can actually exacerbate other strategies, e.g., reuse systems that reduce downstream flows.
  • Ensuring a sustainable, affordable water supply and meeting future demand (in-state demand as well as the demand from our interstate compacts) in an over-appropriated and highly variable state-wide system, while protecting our environment and our agricultural and water-based recreation economies, all in the face of a changing climate.
  • Building infrastructure to increase storage capacity to store water in good years for use during bad years.
  • Completing a statewide water plan to serve as a road map for making difficult decisions in tough years.
  • Protecting Colorado’s entitlement to use Colorado River water and ensuring additional development opportunities are available to benefit all of Colorado.
  • Growing Colorado’s population and economy in a smart and sustainable way.
  • Educating Coloradans about the efficiency and the need for continued conservation and innovative water reuse solutions.
  • Meeting the water needs of other western states to reduce the likelihood of Federal intervention on the compacts Colorado currently has in place.

Potential solutions and/or principles:

The business community must maintain our commitment to being part of the solution and continue to engage with the state’s policymakers to develop a long-term plan for Colorado’s water policy, keeping the following principles at the forefront:

  • Ensure efficient, reliable access to water and predictable cost structures.
  • Maintain the prior appropriation doctrine.
  • Do not prioritize one industry’s or one region’s use of water over another’s.
  • Carefully balance the needs of Colorado’s economy (business and industrial, agricultural, recreational, residential) on future water projects.
  • Reinforce an “all-of-the-above” approach to solving water challenges including conservation, efficiency and reuse strategies, diversion strategies, prioritization of uses, increased storage capacity, water reclamation, integration and coordination of water operations and systems.
  • Create an efficient, cost effective and transparent regulatory process.
  • Develop an upper basin insurance program that will protect Colorado’s key system reservoir levels.

Gregory Hobbs. Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law 2nd Edition. Denver: Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

Meeting Colorado’s Future Water Supply Needs: Opportunities and Challenges Associated with Potential Agricultural Water Conservation Measures. (2008, February 11). Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://cwrri.colostate.edu/other_files/Ag%20water%20conservation%20paper%20Feb%2011%20%282%29.pdf.

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation. (Dec. 2012). Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study. Retrieved June 8, 2014, from http://protectflows.com/colorado-river-basin-study.