Colorado cities battle to retain, gain water rights amid continuing growth

Our Colorado: Water usage important for future

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DENVER -- In our Colorado, you tell us you are concerned about the future of our water.

This year we had we had a lousy winter in terms of moisture, with our drought map showing Colorado ranging from moderate drought status to exceptional drought.

Yet, we see more and more people move here every day.

At Denver7, we are committed to sharing stories that get to the heart of Coloradans' concerns and what you are telling us is you are worried.  Do we have enough water?  Can cities run out of water?

Yes, it's happening right now in Cape Town, South Africa, where they have experienced three years of drought, no real conservation plan, and more people – all the things Coloradans worry could happen here.

In Cape Town, 13 gallons per person a day is all residents are allotted right now as they prepare for day zero – when the taps are expected to run dry, sometime in July. For comparison, here in the United States, we each typically use about 80 to 100 gallons a day.

How is our water used?

Agriculture uses the most: production of our food and other resources account for about 86 percent of water usage.

Our cities and towns use about 5 to 10 percent.

The rest is used by businesses and industries.

And all that water?  The reality is, long ago, the rights were all bought up.

“All the easy water rights, all the easy water supplies were gone years ago, decades ago. So now, figuring out where to go and look for new water for a growing city is more challenging,” said Marshall Brown, the director at Aurora Water.

Since 2010, our population has grown by nearly 600,000 people.

The last census estimate, made in July, put our Colorado population at just over 5.6 million.  When you think about that growth and look at the expanding skyline, you have to wonder whether our water entities are planning for the future.

Ron Rodd, the District Manager for Parker Water and Sanitation, sat in in front of Reuter Hess Reservoir as he spoke to Denver7 about just that.

“What you see in the background is 6 years of filling,” Rodd said. “There's about 27,000 acre-feet of water there.”

Rodd is talking about Parker Water’s plan, which is to store water when it is plentiful.

Reuter Hess Reservoir is about 105 feet deep right now; the plan is to get it 165 feet deep.

You might look at it and think it looks like a nice recreation area, but Reuter Hess was built to take water from Cherry Creek and store it.

“It's a bucket for us to stick water in during wet years and pull water out during dry years,” Rodd said.

Parker has also bought up water rights 150 miles away, near Iliff, Colorado, because Parker is expecting its population to triple by the year 2045.

The city of Aurora too, has been building, buying and planning. 

Its population of 365,000 is expected to double by 2070.

They will live in places like Aurora Highlands, which is just one of Aurora’s many planned developments.  The city has room to grow, with plenty of acreage of undeveloped land, and Brown says Aurora’s 50-year plan has enough water to handle it all.

“We're 95 percent surface water,” Brown said. “We get almost all of our water from snowpack."

Brown says getting water from several sources, and not just one, is key to its supply. 

“Aurora and a number of other municipalities are putting things in place to protect ourselves from a Cape Town situation,” he said.

Aurora has bought up rights to water from the Colorado River, the South Platte and the Arkansas River basins, along with rights to a reservoir called Wild Horse located more than 100 miles away – near Alma in Park County.

 And now, the city is looking at a new source. It’s an old gold mine called London Mine, located near Breckenridge in Park County. The mining there has stopped, but its water rights are still tied up.

“That's one area where we can look to shift to municipal use."

University of Denver Professor Hillary Hamann has been studying water for decades and says we should all be thinking about our water sources all the time.

Even something as simple as looking at your water bill can make a difference on your water footprint.

“People actually see how much water they are using, and that provides a real motivation to cut back,” Hamann said. “If you don't know how much you are using or you have a set bill, then there is no motivation to save water.”

So when you ask: can Colorado run out of water? It's not a simple answer, but you can take some comfort in knowing that because of conservation and more efficient water saving fixtures, new buildings don't necessarily mean higher bills or higher usage.

“Denver has been a great example of that, because despite growth over the last 10 to 15 years, the amount of water used has remained steady if not dropped a little bit.”

Conservation is key.  Aurora is also using a third less water per person compared to the year 2000.

Still, as consumers, it is important to do your homework.  Just like you look at the quality of schools or property taxes before you move into a neighborhood, you should be asking, does this community or my water district have a water plan?

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