It’s been seven years since work began to implement Colorado’s first water plan. A lot has been accomplished in that time period, but tracking those achievements isn’t as straightforward as one might think. And with the updated plan, measures for success look different than before.
The 2023 water plan is organized around four interconnected action areas—vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds, and resilient planning. For each action area, the new plan describes a long-term vision and actions that stakeholders and state agencies can move forward. This is a shift from what was in the 2015 water plan, which included eight measurable objectives as a means to track progress.
To help Coloradans trying to bridge from the old to the new, we map linkages between the old objectives and the new vision and action areas with a selection of success stories that bridge the gap.
Colorado Vision: Vibrant Communities
Create Transformative Change
2015 Measurable Objective: By 2025, 75% of Coloradans will live in communities that have integrated water saving measures into their land use planning.
Reported Progress Toward the 2015 Objective: 62% of Coloradans now live in communities whose leaders have taken training to integrate water and land use planning.
Colorado aims to create a sustainable urban landscape with communities that balance their water supply and demand needs. The updated water plan calls for municipalities to adopt water efficiency practices, implement conservation programs, control water loss, create climate-appropriate greenspaces, and more.
The new vision includes elements of the 2015 water plan’s measurable objective but highlights many different ways, including and going beyond land use planning, for all Colorado communities to integrate wise water use.
While the CWCB’s reported progress toward its 2015 goal does not directly translate to its initial goal, its strategic direction—and funding—supported the integration of water-saving and land use planning throughout the state.
“The 2015 Colorado water plan succeeded in elevating the value and importance of municipal water conservation, efficiency and reuse as communities continue to grow. Establishing [this goal] boosted the drive and motivation of the Sonoran Institute’s training and assistance work with local governments and their water providers,” says Waverly Klaw, director of resilient communities and watersheds at the Sonoran Institute, an Arizona-based nonprofit that also works in Colorado, teaching municipal leaders how to combine water and land use planning through its Growing Water Smart program.
Klaw has worked for years on long-term recovery and resilience plans for Colorado’s communities, including work with CWCB staff in creating the 2015 Colorado Resiliency Framework, and she submitted two rounds of comments through the Sonoran Institute for the 2023 water plan draft.
Since 2017, the Growing Water Smart program has leveraged multiple Water Plan Grants to host two-day intensive workshops where water planners, land use planners, and elected officials create plans for integrating water and land use planning in their communities. To date, Sonoran has held eight of these workshops across Colorado, training representatives of 61 local governments.
And in 2020, the Sonoran Institute published a set of metrics to assess the progress toward, and impact of, urban strategies that integrate water-saving measures into land use plans and policies. The Growing Water Smart Metrics: Tracking the Integration of Water and Land Use Planning guidebook aids communities in benchmarking and tracking their water savings goals.
Colorado Vision: Robust Agriculture
Sustain Profitable Production
2015 Water Plan Measurable Objective: 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water shared through voluntary alternative transfer methods by 2030.
Reported Progress Toward the 2015 Objective: Annual municipal leasing of 25,000 acre-feet of agricultural water has helped cities and farms coexist.
The update to the water plan creates a vision of sustainable agriculture in Colorado, which will mean facing drought, urbanization, and shrinking water supplies, through actions like building storage, replacing diversion structures, improving efficiencies on farms, expanding agricultural water conservation education, capacity building to support agriculture, and more.
The 2015 water plan set a measurable objective of sharing 50,000 acre-feet of water through voluntary sharing agreements by 2030. This was meant to reduce the “buy and dry” that has occurred throughout Colorado as cities acquire agricultural water rights and remove them from the land to serve growing populations.
The updated plan reveals a new but similar action item for the CWCB and Colorado Department of Agriculture to help expand the scale of collaborative water sharing agreements, with the aim of minimizing permanent reductions in irrigated agriculture and the socioeconomic and ecological externalities that come with that. This expansion can be done through grant making, knowledge sharing, and moving toward larger-scale projects with lower transaction costs. The new approach also recognizes that water sharing can happen beyond agricultural entities and municipalities—agreements can also be ag to ag, or between agriculture and environmental or recreational interests.
While not fully met and difficult to quantify, the 2015 goal spurred and helped refine some collaborative water sharing agreements. The 2015 water plan promoted the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company, which provides leased agricultural water to cities, as a promising solution to water shortages. But innovators on the ground have helped close this gap in other ways: Scott Lorenz of Colorado Springs Utilities says the Super Ditch Company solution “was not something that worked for farmers and it was not something that worked for cities. There were some fundamental flaws in how it was set up.”
Lorenz and his colleagues spent four years conducting studies and meeting with farmers across the Lower Arkansas River Basin to design their own program. In 2014, they launched the Arkansas Valley Water Sharing Program with the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association. The project provides water for Colorado Springs municipal use in five of every 10 years, while farmers in the Las Animas and Lamar areas take excess water during the other 5 years.
This reduces large-scale transfers and the permanent removal of water from agriculture—an innovative and flexible agreement to meet the needs of both groups.
Since its success, Colorado Springs Utilities has worked with Bent County officials to streamline the process through an Intergovernmental Agreement, approved Sept. 1, 2022, hoping to bring many more water sharing agreements to the area.
And 50 miles north, Rebecca Tejada with Parker Water and Sanitation District says the 2015 water plan’s goals supported what was already instilled in the culture of Parker Water: finding collaborative water shortage solutions that don’t dry up agricultural land.
“We realized that we’re going to have to come up with maybe a bigger project that didn’t just solely focus on Parker Water needs,” says Tejada.
Parker Water had previously purchased a few farms on the South Platte River in the early 2000s. Instead of converting the farms’ senior water rights from agricultural to municipal usage, Parker Water leased the farms to multiple farmers, allowing them to protect the economy and culture along the South Platte. They formed the Platte Valley Water Partnership with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in 2021, bringing agricultural and municipal water users together to capture junior water rights in times of excess that would otherwise leave the state. The proposed project focuses on utilizing storage so that later, when there’s little or no water coming down the river, that stored water is still available for use in Colorado.
Tejada says that learning how water is used in agriculture and building relationships with the agricultural community has shifted her perspective.
“We’ve gone out of our way not to just do a ‘Do No Harm’ idea, but rather a win-win concept with them,” says Tejada.
Colorado Vision: Thriving Watersheds
Enhance Watershed Health
2015 Water Plan Measurable Objective: 80% of locally prioritized rivers covered with stream management plans (SMPs) and 80% of critical watersheds covered with watershed protection plans by 2030.
Reported Progress Toward the 2015 Objective: As of 2021, 26 SMPs had been developed.
The 2015 water plan included a goal to increase the “locally prioritized rivers” studied by stream management plans (SMPs). Stream management plans are data-driven assessments of river health that help communities prioritize how to protect or enhance environmental and recreational assets in their watershed.
“Locally prioritized” rivers was an undefined, hard-to-measure goal, so the vision in the 2023 water plan morphed to more broadly include many actions that will help prioritize stream health, reduce barriers to implementing instream flow protections, improve forest health, reconnect floodplains, and more. Harkening back to the SMP goal, the new plan includes an action that CWCB will take to create a framework for prioritizing stream health with local stakeholders. The new plan recognizes nature-based solutions as an important part of watershed planning and includes a more specific focus on forest health as part of overall watershed health.
Whether looking at the 2015 goal or the 2023 vision, stakeholders across the state cite the SMP process, in addition to other collaborations like integrated water management plans and river health assessments, as invaluable in sparking new water projects.
Some of the SMPs’ biggest impacts have been bringing various stakeholders to the same room, improving relationships, and finding win-win solutions.
The San Miguel Basin, where Mely Whiting works, was the pilot project for SMPs in Southwest Colorado. Whiting is chair of the environmental and recreational (E&R) subcommittee of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project legal counsel. With the San Miguel Watershed Coalition, she helped commission a third-party report of the area’s E&R water supply needs.
During outreach, the team quickly realized that “even though the coalition was supposed to include everybody, it really didn’t,” says Whiting. The agricultural community was left behind.
The coalition decided to develop an integrated management plan, looking at the needs of each different community of water users, including irrigators and municipal uses. And four years later, “the two ends of the basin are actually really, really working closely together and talking,” says Whiting. Though the management planning process is done, those involved intend to continue working together through the San Miguel Coalition.
“It was a huge success … people that were on opposite ends of things ended up talking to each other and I think it unified the community — the water community, for sure,” says Whiting, adding that it led to more collaborative projects around the basin.
Emma Reesor, executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, agrees that the SMP process has helped bring more diverse perspectives and stakeholders together in the Rio Grande Basin. These relationships have led not only to projects, but also funding, that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, such as the Conejos River Partnership Project, a collaborative effort to improve diversion structures and habitats along the river.
Colorado Vision: Resilient Planning
Build Water Security
2015 Water Plan Measurable Objective: Engage Coloradans statewide on at least five key water challenges that should be addressed by 2030 and significantly improve the level of public awareness and engagement regarding water issues statewide.
Reported Progress Toward the 2015 Objective: Up to 2.7 million people have learned about Colorado water through outreach, education and messaging.
The 2023 update to the water plan envisions a future where Colorado is adaptive and resilient to face the challenges ahead. This action area includes planning for climate extremes, drought and water security, but also education, outreach, engagement, and embracing equity, diversity and inclusivity. As the 2023 water plan notes, “Inclusively engaging all Coloradans in these efforts will build more resilient solutions.”
This is broader but not dissimilar from what was in the 2015 water plan, which included a goal focused on education, engagement and water awareness. Big steps have been made to reach, engage and educate more community members around Colorado water, including those spearheaded by the CWCB around the updated water plan itself.
The CWCB focused on community outreach on the front end of the water plan drafting process to bring the concept of equity into the discussion in a way that the original water plan did not.
In 2021, the agency created a Water Equity Task Force, which drafted principles that guided the update to the water plan and led CWCB to commission the Denver-based grassroots organization CREA Results—founded and operated by Latino immigrants—to reach more Coloradans during the water plan’s public comment period. Fernando Pineda-Reyes, CEO of CREA Results, says that it was a “refreshing opportunity” to proactively engage with communities, as opposed to working reactively on public health and environmental issues after they arise.
“We are in a very diverse community and our voices need to be collected and strategically invited to participate,” says Pineda-Reyes. “Just ensuring that you have all the colors in a task force doesn’t ensure that you have diversity of thought at the level or specificity that you want.”
For Pineda-Reyes, ensuring this diverse participation meant meeting communities where they are and respecting cultural considerations. The CREA team formed coalitions and WhatsApp groups, strategically canvassed throughout communities, set up kiosks at events, hosted webinars and informational sessions, partnered with Spanish-speaking radio programs and publications, and traveled throughout the state to connect face-to-face with community members.
With the help of CREA and other partners, the 2023 plan received significantly more engagement from Colorado’s Spanish-speaking community—CREA’s efforts reached 7,500 Coloradans in person and over 130,000 via media and communications and, for the first time, CWCB received comments—more than 300—and stories of water conservation successes in Spanish. The Water Equity Task Force also worked with representatives from Colorado’s two federally recognized tribes and a member from the acequia community.
“For the first time, I am seeing numerous groups asking about tribal engagement and how tribal nations should be part of the solution and not an obstacle,” says Ernest House, Jr., director for tribal and indigenous engagement at the Keystone Policy Center. House is a member of the Water Equity Task Force and a new member of the Colorado Interbasin Compact Committee, and he says he’s “very hopeful” about the future of water efficiency and conservation in Colorado.
“When I look at other states, I’m not seeing the level of communication that I see here in Colorado. I’m a firm believer in collaboration happening at the speed of trust. If we want our outreach and plans to be effective, we need to build trust among our communities. Colorado can and should be the example and the water plan is the opportunity,” says House.
The challenge is now in the plan’s implementation, says Pineda-Reyes.
“We need to now give voice to a report,” he says. “There’s the opportunity to bring and create more advocates into this complicated issue.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Parker Water and Sanitation District as a city. Parker Water is a special district that is not affiliated with the Town of Parker.
Emily Payne is a writer covering the intersection of food, agriculture, health, and climate. She is editor of the global nonprofit Food Tank and consults across sectors—including startups, NGOs, and universities—to help connect those supporting food systems solutions.