Water Use, Conservation & Efficiency
In Colorado, a headwaters state with a semi-arid climate, water supplies are limited.
The total amount of water that originates within Colorado averages 13.7 million acre-feet per year. Due to delivery obligations to send water to downstream states, through interstate compacts and agreements, less than 40%, or 5.3 million acre-feet, is currently consumed within the state each year.
The difference between the amount of water originating in Colorado and what's consumed in the state each year
Water is used multiple times in Colorado. A typical water-use sequence looks something like this: 1) Water is diverted for use; 2) the plant, person, or process consumes a portion of the water; 3) the unconsumed portion of water makes its way back to the river (known as “return-flows”); and 4) other water users downstream subsequently use the return-flows, and the cycle repeats.
Water uses in Colorado are generally broken down into two main categories: consumptive and non-consumptive. Uses that, for the most part, permanently remove water from its source are referred to as consumptive. Conversely, uses that leave flows in rivers are referred to as non-consumptive uses. Non-consumptive uses support many of the qualities people love about Colorado. As competition for water intensifies, it becomes increasingly important to reserve water for the environment and recreation, ensuring that flows aren’t completely diverted, leaving rivers dry.
The average amount of water consumed across Colorado per year
Colorado’s water supply is limited and water demands are expected to increase. The Colorado State Demographer projects that the state’s population could grow from around 5.8 million people in 2022 to around 7.6 million by 2050. If growth occurs as predicted, the result could be a water supply gap of around 560,000 acre-feet for industrial and municipal uses, and much more – between 2 million and 3.5 million for agriculture, leaving many water needs unmet or met only partially.
To further complicate growing water supply needs, supplies are not necessarily where uses are: Roughly 80% of Colorado’s runoff originates west of the Continental Divide, according to the Colorado Climate Center, while more than 85% of the population and the majority of irrigated acres are found east of the Divide, according to data from the Colorado State Demographer’s office.
To continue stretching scarce water supplies, policy makers, water providers and residents are adjusting the way they use and consume water through advanced conservation goals, practices, policies, zoning and regulations. Water conservation and efficiency play important roles in balancing the need for more water and the ability to use less water.