Northern Water District Shares 75-Year History

Northern Water is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. For three quarters of a century Northern Water has been working with water users throughout the South Platte River Basin in northeastern Colorado to develop, protect and conserve water supplies for the region.

The rich water development history of the South Platte Basin goes back another 75 years before Northern Water’s creation. In fact the earliest water rights in the basin date to 1861 when the first farmers began diverting water from the Poudre River near Fort Collins.

A little more than a decade later, in 1874, a confrontation between the downstream Greeley residents and the upstream Fort Collins residents led to the codification of the doctrine of prior appropriation and eventually as part of the State Constitution in 1876.

As ditch, reservoir and irrigation companies were developed and canals built during the remainder of the 19th century the region flourished and developed a robust agricultural economy. Beginning in the 1890s and continuing for 20 years, hundreds of storage reservoirs were built to store water for late summer irrigation or for future dry years.

When Northern Water was created in the 1930s as a direct result of the ongoing drought and depression, there were more than 120 ditch, reservoir and irrigation companies in existence within the boundaries of what was to become the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Northern Water was established under the Water Conservancy Act of Colorado in September 1937. Its first order of business was to work with the Federal government - the Bureau of Reclamation which had been established in 1902 - to build what was to become the largest transmountain diversion project in the state. The project, the Colorado-Big Thompson, was a direct result of the 1930s drought and depression and was viewed as a life saver for the economy of northeastern Colorado.

Built from 1938 to 1956, the C-BT, as it became known, delivers more than 200,000 acre feet of water annually to farms, cities and businesses in an eight county service area. Water from the C-BT supplements the irrigation needs on nearly 650,000 irrigated acres and more than 120 ditch, reservoir and irrigation companies. Thirty three cities and towns receive water from the C-BT as well as businesses, industries (IBM, Anheuser-Busch, Vestas) and universities (Colorado State, University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado.)

The project provides between 25 and 35 percent of the total water supply in northeastern Colorado, depending on the year, and supplements the flows of four of the South Platte River’s major tributaries - the Cache la Poudre, Big and Little Thompson and St, Vrain rivers along with Boulder Creek. The C-BT provides more water in dry years and less in wet years when the region has more snowmelt runoff and storage to rely on.

A lot has changed since the C-BT was completed in 1957.

In 1957 nearly all (98 percent) of the water brought from western Colorado to the northern front range through the 13-mile long Alva B. Adams Tunnel was delivered to farmers. In addition, 85 percent of the C-BT water was owned by farmers. Today, deliveries average 60 to 65 percent to farmers. The biggest change, as the region has become more urbanized, (850,000 people today vs. 150,000 50 years ago) is in the ownership where farmers now own just 1/3 of the C-BT water supply.

As cities have grown (7 of the 10 fastest growing cities and towns in the state are within Northern Water’s boundaries) they’ve needed additional water. More often than not they’ve found those supplies from farmers willing to sell.

Therein lies one of the most critical issues facing Colorado in the years ahead - how to maintain and protect a healthy agricultural economy without sacrificing the water so necessary to its survival. Northern Water is attempting to address this issue head on as it develops additional municipal and industrial water supplies as an alternative to the buy and dry approach for meeting future population growth.

Beginning with the completion of the Windy Gap Project in 1985, Northern and its Municipal Subdistrict have constructed two pipeline projects in efforts to provide these alternatives. The Southern Water Supply Project, completed in 1999, consists of 78 miles of pipeline and helps participating communities receive C-BT and Windy Gap water year round. The Pleasant Valley Pipeline added flexibility to Fort Collins, Greeley and a consortium of water districts in getting year round deliveries and was completed in 2004.

Today, Northern Water is working through the environmental permitting on two water storage projects - the Windy Gap Firming and the Northern Integrated Supply projects. When built these will provide an additional 70,000 acre feet of new supply to the region and lessen the pressure on agriculture to supply those needs.

Anniversary year

Northern Water was created on September 20, 1937, four months after the Water Conservancy District Act was passed in the Colorado legislature. It was the first such conservancy district formed in the state and is proud to be celebrating 75 years of developing, managing, conserving and delivering water.

An anniversary celebration and open house will be held at Northern Water’s Berthoud headquarters on Sept. 20, 2012. For more information please visit the Northern Water website at

To learn more about Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit or Next week on Tuesday, April 10th, the Rio Grande Round Table will hold its monthly meeting at the Inn of the Rio Grande at 2 p.m. Also, Water 2012 would like to announce the opening of a statewide video contest called “A Day Without Water.” For more details on this contest, visit With questions or comments on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please contact Leah Opitz at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Anti-discrimination Policy: The Rio Grande Watershed Conservation Education Program prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program.

© 2014 Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative (login)