Staving off the state’s water shortage, one leaky pipe at a time

This is what water wonks call "infrastructure."

If Colorado hopes to reach its goal of conserving at least 130 billion gallons of water a year by 2050, some of the state’s water utilities will have to step up their evaluation and repairs on aging or corroded water lines.

Colorado water experts anticipate that by 2050, the state will need at least one million acre-feet of water more than it will have, an estimate that many believe is conservative. (An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water it would take to cover Mile High Stadium from end zone to end zone with one foot of water.)

That means every sector of water use — recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal and environmental — can anticipate shortages. Much of the shortfall is tied to Colorado’s population boom. The state’s population is projected to nearly double from about 5.3 million to at least 8.7 million people, perhaps reaching as high as 10.3 million, by 2050.

On Tuesday, a state legislative interim committee met to discuss, among other things, how to save more water by stopping “water loss.”

Water providers lose 25 billion gallons of water a year through leaking water lines and hundreds of water main breaks, according to estimates in the Colorado Water Plan

For water providers and utilities, that loss comes at the cost of extracting water and treating it, only to lose some of it before it reaches the user. In Colorado, water experts put the cost of that loss at about $50 million a year. In addition to actual water loss, there are also costs associated with incorrectly-operating water meters or other discrepancies.

Bottom line: Those financial losses mean utilities have less to spend on maintaining their systems. And the bottom, bottom line? Guess who helps make up the difference?

Utilities pass on the costs of water loss to consumers, says Theresa Conley of Conservation Colorado. Utilities have fixed costs and revenue that fluctuates based on how much water is used throughout the year. Water loss impacts water providers’ bottom line, she said, and that means consumers end up paying for water that gets lost in the system.

Fix these problems and that could save about 77,000 acre-feet of water a year — or about 20 percent of the state’s conservation goal.  The focus on repairing leaking pipes comes at a time when national and local attention is being paid to lead in water supplies, largely due to corroded water lines in Flint, Michigan but found in Colorado, as well.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources,and author of the state’s water plan, would like to see a uniform way of measuring water loss. It has developed a tool for utilities that would track water loss statewide. But the utilities aren’t all that enthusiastic about using it, pointing out that their own efforts are producing the desired results.

John Thornhill, chief engineer at Greeley Water and Sewer, told the committee this week that pipes installed in the 1950s were the biggest problem for Greeley because the linings in them were susceptible to corrosion. The utility recently finished replacing those corroded pipes, which were part of a network of 640 miles of water lines.

Offering a well-worn pun in the industry, he said: “We’re getting the lead out.”

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. First off, “Amna Kahn” take your spam and shove it. There is NO place for it here, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    Now, on to reality. The problem really started when Reagan came along and decided that no infrastructure repair or maintenance had to be done at all, and the majority of state governments went along with him. And now, after 35 years of not taking care of basic business, the price is coming due. It would have been FAR cheaper and easier to take care of it at the time, rather than clean up the huge mess this laziness has brought us.

    This is happening all over the country, where our water systems are, in some cases, over a hundred hears old and rapidly decaying. THIS is what “conservative” philosophy brings you. They seem to think that everything is a self sustaining system, and they sure don’t want to be bothered to pay for the upkeep of ANY of it. I guess that’s for poor people to deal with.

    It’s time to be SMARTER than our previous leadership, for a change. We can either spend the money needed to fix these things, or we can suffer and die with no water in the next few decades. It’s really that simple. Either keep being “conservative”, which means CHEAP to anything BUT paying out to the 1%, or we can be smarter and insure our survival.

    What’s your choice, Colorado? A little pain now, or a TON of it in a few years. Your call, I know where I stand on it. And most of us who grew up here feel the same, because we KNOW what water means here.

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