The Many Uses of Colorado's Water
“Water is Life” is a saying that defines much of the San Luis Valley community’s focus, from struggles to innovations, from battles to collaborations, and from economic demise to viability and prosperity.
The value of water is rising along with Colorado’s population, increasing demands for limited water supplies. One of the key roles of water managers and communities is to better understand where, when and how water is used, and to try to figure out how to meet those many needs as sustainably as possible.
Over many decades of water “development” to meet such needs, people have built systems and infrastructure to expand their ability to use water. These range from the vast system of reservoirs, canals and ditches to wells, irrigation sprinklers and drip systems that have been built to deliver water for ranch and farm operations to the wells, storage, pipelines, treatment plants and other systems that deliver clean water for municipal and industrial needs.
Within the current statewide conversation about water planning, these agricultural, industrial and municipal uses are referred to as “consumptive” uses. However, even within these consumptive uses, not necessarily all the water that is stored, diverted and/or delivered is actually “used” or fully consumed in the process. In many cases, some of that water may return to the system and be available to be used again.
Consumptive use of water in agriculture is measured (for management and legal purposes) by the amount used by the plants grown, and again, not all of the water applied to the land is actually “consumed.” For example, some of the water that flows across an irrigated meadow is used by the plants there, which serve as pasture or hay for livestock. But not all of the water applied is consumed, and some of it may flow into lower areas, creating wetlands and habitat for wildlife; and some of it may return to the river as well, sustaining flows to some degree and being available to the next user, some seeps into the ground recharging the aquifer, and so on.
This leads to another defined set of water uses that are every bit as vital to the “water is life” concept. Water uses for or by the environment and recreation are called, in the water vernacular, “non-consumptive” uses. These uses also don’t fit neatly into categories, as the environment, from the highest forests which take the first “drink” of the melting snow in the spring, to the wetland plants (that provide food and habitat to the multitude of ducks, geese, cranes and other birds and wildlife that rely upon them) do actually consume some water to grow too, like any other plant.
A healthy environment can provide all kinds of important “services” to people, from storing water in natural settings, recharging aquifers, purifying water to mitigating floods, to name a few. At the same time, there are many factors across the landscape that people can also affect profoundly, which can help the environment help us too. From good grazing management to building soil health on farms, management practices can help nature better stretch limited water supplies further as well.
While recreational uses of water, such as fishing, boating, and so on, perhaps do not directly consume much water, they do place demands upon Colorado’s limited water supply. These uses may require having enough water in the right place at the right time to provide for recreational activities, such as sustaining lake levels for boating, and river and stream flows for rafting and fishing, and water for snow making at ski areas. With recreation as a large and growing component of Colorado’s economy as well, these uses have brought new demands on Colorado’s water supply into the mix.
This is just the briefest overview of the many uses of water that can either compete or cooperate, or sometimes both. But if “water truly is life”, then the challenge facing the San Luis Valley and all Colorado communities is to figure out how to meet these many demands in sustainable ways, from caring for the natural systems and ecological functions that likewise sustain people, to providing the quality and quantity of water needed for agricultural, industrial and municipal/domestic, and recreational uses for a growing human population.
It appears that this will require some real creativity, improved management practices, new technologies, and better understanding of these many uses of water and the relationships between them.