Protecting the Health of Colorado River Headwaters Through 21st Century Water Management

Bart Miller“Water conservation is the cheapest, fastest and most reliable way to stretch water supplies while ensuring a high quality of life and healthy rivers.”

– Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program Director

Western Resource Advocates has researched and written a series of reports called Filling the Gap that provide a proactive approach to meeting the future water needs of the Front Range of Colorado and eastern Wyoming while protecting these states’ economy, environment, and exceptional quality of life.

Water Management Requires a 21st Century Approach to Keep Rivers Flowing

Rather than continuing outdated water management patterns from the 19th century, 21st century water management must account for keeping rivers flowing, minimizing harm to our environment, and supporting river-related recreation, in addition to supplying water to our homes, businesses and farms. Managing water for a broad range of water users requires new ways of thinking and new water management tools.

Concrete and Steel Solutions No Longer the Go To Tool for Today’s Challenges

For example, 80% of Colorado’s population is located on the eastern side of the state, while 80% of Colorado’s water supplies are on the western side. As a result, Colorado water users have built nearly two dozen diversion structures (called Trans Mountain Diversions) that take water from high mountain tributaries of the Colorado River and pipe it back across the Continental Divide to serve cities and agriculture on the eastern plains. This massive concrete-and-steel type of solution to increasing water supply worked well in the 19th century, but it is ill-suited for meeting our current demands for water in the 21st century.

Our “Filling the Gap” Reports Offer Solutions that Meet Community Needs While Protecting Rivers


ES1 - chart of how to fill The Gap: Commonsense Solutions for Meeting Front Range W
Produced in collaboration with Trout Unlimited and Conservation Colorado, each of our Filling the Gap reports offers a realistic and balanced water supply proposal that meets the projected needs of growing communities while protecting Colorado River headwaters, state economies, and residents’ high quality of life. Employing widely accepted data, the reports explore four water supply strategies – water conservation, water reuse, acceptable water diversion projects, and voluntary water sharing with the agriculture sector. Importantly, our portfolios more than meet future water needs without the need for large, costly, and environmentally damaging water diversions that are a hallmark of 19th century water supply planning.

Western Resource Advocates works throughout federal, state, and local planning processes to implement our proactive solution for meeting future human water needs while protecting rivers. Our top recommendations include:

  • Meet future water needs with balanced strategies that are more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than traditional large-scale water damming and diversion projects.
  • Protect Colorado’s rivers, streams, and lakes as an integral part of any future water development strategy. Water for fishing, whitewater recreation, and other recreational uses are worth billions of dollars annually to our state economy and are critical to the quality of life in this state.
  • Implement new innovative water conservation strategies. Conservation is often the cheapest, fastest, and smartest way to gain “new” water supplies, and Western communities have significant opportunities to boost their existing water conservation efforts.
  • Maximize the role of water reuse in meeting the future needs of Colorado’s residents.
  • Cooperate with agriculture on voluntary water sharing agreements that benefit both urban communities and agricultural communities without permanently drying up agriculture.
  • Pursue only those diversion and dam projects that can be constructed and operated according to the “smart” principles that protect river flows and river health.

Reports for Further Information

The Hardest Working River in the West: Common-Sense Solutions for a Reliable Water Future for the Colorado River Basin (2014)
Identifies five innovative solutions that could eliminate Western water shortages stemming from the over-taxed and stressed Colorado River and meet the water needs of the West’s business, agricultural and growing population through 2060.

Filling the Gap: Meeting Future Urban and Domestic Water Needs in Southwestern New Mexico (2014)
The water supply ‘gap’ between Southwestern New Mexico cities’ water supplies and new demands is only 35 acre feet, which can be met with available water conservation practices, rather than constructing the expensive, unnecessary Gila diversion project.

Filling the Gap: Meeting Future Urban Water Needs in the Arkansas Basin (2012)
This report is the second in a series outlining how Colorado can meet future water needs for 80% of the population without building large infrastructure projects or pipeline diversions.

Filling the Gap: Commonsense Solutions for Meeting Front Range Water Needs (2011)
This report offers a realistic and balanced water supply and conservation strategies to meet the projected needs of the Colorado’s Front Range communities while protecting healthy rivers, economy, and quality of life.

Project Staff

Drew Beckwith

Water Policy Manager

Jorge Figueroa

Senior Water Policy Analyst

Bart Miller

Bart Miller

Healthy Rivers Program Director