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Tim Maguire

Water is imported, exported, bought and sold, and transported intrastate, interstate, and internationally.[1]  It has powered the transportation industry and empowered manufacturing. Disagreements over its use and misuse have led to armed conflicts and even war.[2]  With respect to its vitalness, it is equally as precious to other natural resources such as oil, if not more so.  Given its dominance in everyday life and global impact, could it be possible that its conservation and regulation is often overlooked?[3]

Water is necessary to the everyday lives and survival of the human race, but yet, in the eyes of the law, it is largely ignored.  Even with many of the same functions and importance as other precious resources, for most people, water is typically placed on the backburner.  With its increasing scarcity due to climate change and population growth,[4] conservation of water needs to be at the forefront of every citizen’s radar. No stranger to this water crisis are the state of Colorado, the Colorado River, and the six other states that rely on the river for its water supply.[5]

Climate change may exacerbate environmental trends already occurring throughout the country.  Western states, especially in the arid Rocky Mountain Region and the Southwest, have historically relied on snowmelt for water supply through the dry summer months.[6]  Climate change, however, is causing earlier snowmelt in the spring, making late-summer flows continuously lower as the average global temperature continues to rise, and the resulting runoff in the West is already occurring twenty days earlier than historical averages.[7]

There are two ways that Coloradans get water: precipitation[8] and underground water.[9]  The precipitation feeds the watershed systems of Colorado, including the Colorado river, which supplies most of the water to the state.[10]  Approximately eighty-percent of water from the Colorado River heads west at the continental divide, which leaves twenty-percent as ground water, of which eighteen-percent is utilized by the Colorado population as their primary source of water.[11]

Millions of people rely on the Colorado River, but the decrease in precipitation is placing many people’s water supply in peril.[12]  Global warming has caused the Rocky Mountain snowpack to produce much less runoff, decreasing the river’s annual flow by twenty percent.[13]  Typically, snow and ice reflect sunlight back away from the earth’s surface; however, the loss of snow and ice means the earth absorbs more heat, thus creating a positive feedback loop of water shortage.[14]  Research has shown that for every degree Celsius of warming, the Colorado River’s flow decreases approximately nine percent.[15]  So far, the world has heated approximately one degree Celsius, but it is on course to rise three degrees Celsius by the end of the century—unless radical measures are taken.[16]

Climate change leads to an issue of supply and demand with water. The economic conclusion is simple: demand will soon exceed supply.[17]  By the middle years of this century, Colorado can expect a 3.8 million acre-foot deficit in water supply.[18]  This shortage of supply could put 36 million people’s drinking water, agriculture, future economic growth, and outdoor recreational economy in jeopardy, as well as threaten a quarter-million jobs.[19] 

So, what is the solution to this looming water crisis?  Unfortunately, there is no magic wand that can erase the negative effects of climate change.  The obvious consequence of this trend is that citizens and local municipalities of western states will have to manage water supply with heightened resourcefulness.[20]  At the forefront of this effort is conservation.  Conservation can be completed through improved landscaping techniques,[21] routine water audits across the local municipalities,[22] and enhanced watershed protection. 

The Colorado Legislature can also address water conservation by providing rebate programs to incentivize the purchase of water-saving devices.  This proposal serves two functions: (1) it will lower the cost of the, generally, more expensive efficient appliances, thus boosting sales and the economy; and (2) it will promote the use of water-friendly appliances and thereby promote the conservation of water.

Additionally, conservation can be aided by utilizing more water-friendly irrigation techniques.  Many western states utilize flood and furrow irrigation, which are the least efficient manners of irrigation because water is lost to surface runoff, groundwater, and evaporation.[23]  There are various more efficient methods of irrigation that Colorado can utilize to conserve water including drip irrigation, sprinklers, and micro-spray irrigation.[24]

Harvesting rainwater can aid in the conservation effort as well.  Capturing and storing rainwater on one’s property has many uses including evaporative coolers, toilet flushing, car washing, swimming pools, and surface irrigation.[25]  Precipitation capture on residential property serves as a free natural water source for landscaping while using water that contains no chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine, no dissolved salts, and no minerals from the soil.[26]  In addition, residential precipitation capture may lower a homeowner’s water costs while furthering conservation efforts.[27] 

 Further, wastewater reuse is a viable option.  A major hurdle of “selling” reused potable water as drinking water is public perception.  Public opinion, however, is misguided, and recycled water can be purer than current drinking water.[28]  Water treatment plants have the ability to implement membrane technology, particularly reverse osmosis, to produce highly purified recycled water.[29]  Reverse osmosis provides better assurances in safety of drinking water thanks to its ability to simultaneously remove a broad range of contaminants including total dissolved solids, pathogens, viruses, bacteria, and low molecular chemical contaminants.[30]

Utilizing groundwater can be another viable option to decrease the stress placed on the Colorado River.  Desalination uses have historically been most prevalent in coastal areas, treating either seawater supplies directly, or seawater influenced groundwaters; however, as desalination technologies have advanced, and water supplies have become more stressed, inland locations have increasingly turned to desalination as well.[31]  Colorado has brackish groundwater that sits at a depth of approximately 500 feet.[32]  This brackish water can be pumped, treated, and potentially generate 620,000 acre-feet of water.[33] 

There are preventative measures that humans can take to stave off this impending crisis.  Whether these preventative measures are followed is to be determined.  It seems obvious, but it is the truth—water is a resource that every creature needs to survive.  With its endless value juxtaposed by its scarcity, humans must respect, conserve, and protect it.  Conservation efforts must be put into place and awareness must be spread because it is our collective and individual responsibility to preserve and tend to the environment in which we all live.[34]

[1] Robert W. Adler, Climate Change and the Hegemony of State Water Law, 29 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 1, 2 (2010).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.  

[4] The world population and the United States population is continuing to grow.  According to the Pew Research Center, the United States population will grow to 438 million people by 2050, which is a forty-eight percent increase from 296 million in 2005. See Jeffrey S. Passel & D’vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections 2005–2050, Pew Rsch. Ctr., (Feb. 11, 2008),  A significant portion of that growth will also occur in the arid west as Colorado’s population is also expected to increase nearly fifty percent by 2050. Matthew Brodahl & William A. Shutkin, Exactly the Right Amount: Municipal Water Efficiency, Population Growth, & Climate Change, 14 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 337, 338 (2011) (estimating a population increase in the state of Colorado from 5.1 million people in 2008 to anywhere from 8.6 to 10 million people in 2050).

[5] See generally Bruce Finley, West Wrestles with Colorado River “Grand Bargain” as Changing Climate Depletes Water Governed by 1922 Compact, Denver post, (Aug. 25, 2019), (noting that Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Nevada are privy to use of the Colorado River for water supply).

[6] Brodahl & Shutkin, supra note 4, at 339.  With an increase in global temperatures, experts believe precipitation   events will become less frequent in the arid southwestern U.S. Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S. 41 (Thomas R. Karl et al. eds., 2009).

[7] Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S., supra note 6, at 45–46.

[8] On average, Colorado gets approximately twenty inches of precipitation per year, with most of that falling as snow. Water Economics in Colorado: Supply and Demand, Res. Cent. (Feb 12, 2020),

[9] Brackish water is a term used to describe groundwater that is composed of more salinity than groundwater, but not as much as seawater.  Colorado has brackish water sitting at a depth of approximately 500 feet.  Dave Stewart, Inland Desalination – The Future of Water in the West, U.S. Green Building Council (Feb. 2, 2016),; William M. Alley, Desalination of Ground Water: Earth Science Perspectives, U.S. Geological Surv. (Feb. 18, 2014),

[10] Water Economics in Colorado: Supply and Demand, supra note 8.

[11] Id.

[12] Jordan Davidson, Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, ‘Severe Water Shortages’ May Follow, Ecowatch (Feb. 21, 2020, 03:53PM),

[13] Id.

[14] Id.; see also The Albert Team, Positive and Negative Feedback Loops in Biology, Albert (Jun. 1, 2020), (“A positive feedback loop occurs in nature when the product of a reaction leads to an increase in that reaction. . . . [A] positive feedback loop moves a system further away from the target of equilibrium.”).

[15] Davidson, supra note 12.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] The Hardest Working River in the West: Common-Sense Solutions for a Reliable Water Future for the Colorado River Basin, Western Res. Advoc. (July 17, 2014),

[19] Id.  

[20] Brodahl & Shutkin, supra note 4, at 339.

[21] Xeriscaping is a replacement for water-hungry grass. It can reduce water use by fifty to seventy-five percent by utilizing efficient irrigation methods through drip and soaker hoses, which place water directly at the base of the plant preventing the water from evaporating as realized with sprinkler devices.  Studies of homes that choose to use xeriscaping over grass estimated that it saved approximately 120 gallons of water per day. Xeriscaping, Nat’l. Geographic, (last visited Nov. 29, 2020).

[22] An economical way to implement water policy that promotes conservation is to increase rates when water is in high demand, and, correspondingly, reduce rates as the demand drops.  In a conservation-based structure, water usage will be measured in tiers.  As a user ascends into a new tier, all water used from that point on is charged at a higher rate. See Brodahl & Shutkin, supra note 4, at 350.

[23] Heather Karsten et al., Food and the Future of Food, Pa. State Univ., (last visited Nov. 29, 2020).

[24] Id.

[25] Ryan S. Hansen, Colorado Residential Property Owners & Their Cloudy Right to Precipitation Capture, 46 Tulsa L. Rev. 323, 337–38 (2010).

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] See Kieron Monks, From Toilet to tap: Getting a Taste for Drinking Recycled Wastewater, CNN (Nov. 17, 2015, 05:50AM),

[29] The process of reverse osmosis removes contaminants from unfiltered water by using pressure to force it through semipermeable membranes. Chuyang Y. Tang et al., Potable Water Reuse through Advanced Membrane Technology, 52 Env’t Sci. Tech. 10215, 10217 (2018).

[30] Id. at 10215.

[31] Stewart, supra note 9.

[32] Id.

[33] The Hardest Working River in the West: Common-Sense Solutions for a Reliable Water Future for the Colorado River Basin, supra note 18.

[34] Quotes, Do One Thing: Be a Hero for a Better World, (last visited Nov. 29, 2020).