More people, less water? Fewer Coloradans seem to care

Along with providing water for drinking and farms, the Colorado River has long been a key transportation corridor through the Rocky Mountains. Train tracks still in use today near State Bridge, in Eagle County, north of Wolcott, were part of the first transcontinental rail route.

Coloradans are more concerned about water quality than about water supplies, and their awareness of the state’s looming water shortage has fallen sharply in the past three years.

Those findings are from a statewide survey on consumer attitudes about water by pollster Floyd Ciruli. The survey was commissioned by the Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and conducted in June with 712 respondents. Ciruli discussed the results with the General Assembly’s interim water resources review committee, which met at the Water Congress’s summer conference last week.

Ciruli compared Coloradans’ current viewpoints about water to the results of a 2013 survey. Given the state’s rampant growth and looming water shortage, the results didn’t look encouraging.

Coloradans are less concerned about whether the state will have an adequate water supply than they were three years ago. In 2013, 62 percent said they expected an eventual water shortage in the state. This year, only 53 percent shared that view. The percentage of Coloradans who think the state needs to store more water is also down from 59 percent three years ago to 50 percent this year.

The public’s diminished interest in adequate water supplies could not come at a worse time. After a two-year planning effort, Colorado water leaders are  preparing for the state’s water future – a future with less water and more people. A 2010 estimate says the state will be short 326 billion gallons of water annually by the year 2050, when the state’s population is expected to nearly double from 5.4 million to 10.3 million residents. About 100,000 people are moving to Colorado every year.

Every conversation about water should start with conservation, Gov. John Hickenlooper likes to say. But what the survey shows about public interest indicates most people aren’t yet listening.

More than half of Coloradans surveyed believe their water suppliers are doing a good job encouraging water conservation, but there’s room for improvement, the survey found. More Coloradans believe that conservation alone will solve Colorado’s water shortage than three years ago, although it’s a small group – 14 percent this year compared to 10 percent in 2013.

Most Coloradans, however, believe it will take a combination of water storage and conservation to solve the shortage, although fewer believe that now than in 2013.

The survey also gauged what people know about the Colorado Water Plan – the state’s first blueprint for water planning. The 540-page plan reports that Colorado will be short one-million acre-feet of water annually by 2050. It calls for conservation measures that would help close that gap by 400,000 acre-feet, a goal primarily tasked to water utilities and other water providers.

An acre-foot of water is the amount it would take to cover Mile High Stadium from endzone to endzone with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons. That’s enough water to supply an average of four families per year.

The state plan also calls for gleaning another 400,000 acre-feet in water storage, either by improving existing dams and reservoirs or building new ones. Several projects are already under way. They include an expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, which would triple its existing capacity of 41,000 acre-feet, and the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would capture another 40,000 acre-feet of water that currently flows downstream to Nebraska, exceeding what’s required under a multi-state contract.

The state water plan was was ordered by Hickenlooper under an executive order in 2013, with a two-year window for completion. But the plan has been criticized for being less of a plan than a snapshot of where Colorado stood on water supplies last year, and more of a compendium of ideas than specific solutions to Colorado’s water woes in an era of growth, drought and climate change.

Some water experts claim that the plan, completed last November, is already gathering dust and isn’t moving fast enough.

Dennis Saffell, a real estate broker in Summit and Grand counties, penned an editorial in June that took the General Assembly to task for failing to address key recommendations in the plan, such as conservation and funding for healthy rivers.

With so much at stake, it is essential that the plan be implemented to build on the momentum and interest generated during its development,” Saffell wrote. He was among the 30,000 Coloradans who submitted comments on the water plan during its two-year development. “The only difficulty now is lack of engagement — letting the plan just sit — and unfortunately that’s what is occurring,” he wrote.

The legislature did pass a bill this year to put $5 million annually into implementation of the plan, although the bill wasn’t specific about just what that $5 million would be spent on. That’s left to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which developed the plan in conjunction with nine state-directed water groups that focus on a variety of water issue.

The Ciruli survey found that very few of those polled are aware of the state water plan. Of those who were, only 4 percent knew a lot about the plan. Another 15 percent said they’d heard of it. For the rest, the plan is a mystery. 

Coloradans strongly support keeping the state’s water in Colorado, the survey found. Eighty-nine percent agreed that the state should hang onto all the water it’s legally entitled to. Most respondents also were supportive of improving water conservation and building more storage, so long as it doesn’t impact the environment.

Those surveyed also responded favorably to the idea of a ballot measure in 2018 that would fund small and large storage, reuse projects and conservation programs. Coloradans were most supportive of funding long-term planning, improving water conservation programs, enhancing river habitat and developing “new water supplies,” and somewhat less enthusiastic about building new water storage.

One environmentalist claimed the survey is “bogus,” because it didn’t identify the kinds of storage that could be developed. Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado/Save the Poudre, who leads opposition to construction of several water projects in the northern Front Range, said Monday the survey failed to tell respondents about the “negative impacts of new dams and diversions.”

Wockner took issue with the survey’s reference to storage, rather than using terms such as dams, diversions and pipelines. He said the “water buffaloes in Colorado began using the word ‘storage’ in 2015 when they realized it was a method to greenwash new dams and the river destruction caused by dams.”

Ciruli countered that, for most people, storage is a commonly-understood term. It’s even used in polling for environmentally-oriented groups, he noted.

Wockner also complained about the question on the state’s legal share of water, which he said fails to point out that the Colorado River basin is in an extended drought, and that by storing its “legal share of water, the state could get into a geo-political legal war” by causing a “call on the river” that would result in a cutback in junior water rights. (A “call” is a demand for water from the states that draw their supplies from the Colorado, which can happen if water levels in lower state dams falls below legal minimum limits.)

The issue of legal share pertains primarily to two water sources: the Colorado River on the Western Slope and the South Platte on the Front Range and Eastern Plains. Western Slope residents are concerned that the Colorado is already diverting more water than it could supply. The issue is radically different for the South Platte, which has been sending a million acre-feet of water to Nebraska each year for some time.

Respondents ranked conservation, water quality and water pollution as the top three water issues facing the state. Ciruli said the pollution issue has received greater attention in the past year due to the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River near Durango, as well as national attention to the lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan drinking water supply. Water storage dropped from being the second most important issue in 2013 to fourth in this year’s survey.

There was tremendous support for conservation and considerable support for reuse, Ciruli said, “but the lynchpin is that respondents favored the state making a commitment to infrastructure,” in this case, water infrastructure.

The public is conscious about water and concerned about it, Ciruli said, but they want local providers to do something about it. “There’s momentum, but the public would be ill-served and not happy if the plan just goes on the shelf” and doesn’t address the problems, such as storage or maintaining agriculture, for example.

“People are ready” for the state to move on with implementing the water plan, he said.

Photo by Bob Berwyn


  1. Water wars …. what’s the West without water wars? I’d like to emphasize the importance of good statistics when it comes to water use, surface and sub-surface water supplies, projected snow pack, etc. Unreliable data means data that can be manipulated for political ends, including privatization efforts of a public good. i.e., the public’s water resources.

  2. bear with me, seems a bit long winded but when it comes to water in our state little is more precious and worthy of more discussion.

    as for the numbers cited in the above story why so skewed? because nobody included the part, “how long have you resided in CO?”

    with estimated now more than half of our current population having moved here since the 2000 census that matters.

    this newest demographic many with unrealistic visions, expectations of what our state is like. why? based on what they’ve seen on tv, social media. but our state isn’t all mountains and snow. we’re mostly high desert and short grass prairie.

    furthermore when you have people moving here from areas like the midwest, east coast, south. all with urban areas that look pretty much the same as they do here. so more false advertising for a ‘water rich’ environment. these new in-migrants have been spoon fed a water lie plain and simple.

    besides the out of sight out of mind mentality that natives do not have when it comes to water. it was our ancestors that built all the systems, reservoirs, canals, lakes. they did it all for their farms. the farms that feed us everyone, and we graciously share with others for recreation and urban use WHEN we can.

    i think a great example are words spoken back during the drought a couple years back by a newb to loveland. she had just moved into her new luxury home on lake loveland. the farms had to use all THEIR reserves and all that was left,..the water in lake loveland, so it was drained. She was furious her visitors from out of state would have to see mud from her backyard? entirely ignorant of whose water it was and who built it.

    mindset, perception, ignorance are the key issues we need face when it comes to water use in our state. it’s nearly all about our state’s newest residents plain and simple.

    doubt that? ask someone if in our state we use english or spanish water law here. if they don’t know then they do not possess sufficient knowledge to make any assertion, or take any position as to our state’s water. let alone what we do in the future and how we do it.

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