Shrink your water footprint

Understanding Colorado’s most precious resource

Shrinking your water footprint is about more than just turning off the tap when you brush your teeth or taking shorter showers. Understand Colorado’s statewide water plan and get familiar with how the West allocates water.
Wikimedia Commons/Alex Anlicker

You’ve probably heard it said that water is Colorado’s most valuable resource. Yet somehow, sometimes, it’s still forgotten that despite relatively high precipitation in the mountains, Colorado is a semi-arid state. Like much of the West, Colorado has been able to develop only thanks to advanced (and controversial) water engineering projects that have dammed up, redistributed and otherwise managed water to allow people to live where they want to, even if that’s far from where the water is. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of Colorado’s water is found west of the Continental Divide, while 80 to 90 percent of the population lives east of it. The Front Range population continues to swell, and climate change continues to affect water availability both here and across the state. As more and more people make their way here, joining the ranks of non-native Coloradans and increasing the gap between water supply and demand, it’s worth reminding ourselves — often — that water is a scarce and precious thing.

As winter turns (quickly) to spring, we’re not going to lecture you about how irresponsible it is to leave the water running while you brush your teeth and wash your dishes; how unattractive it is to take long showers; how much your neighbors will judge your overwatered lawn, etc. You know that already. Instead, below you’ll find what we hope will be a helpful guide of next-level resources you can use to grow your water knowledge and deepen your commitment to being a water-savvy Coloradan.

Know the plan

You already know water is Colorado’s most important resource; hopefully you also caught the news that the state passed its first-ever statewide water plan in late 2015. In a nutshell, the water plan is designed to guide water-related decisions to ensure the state’s water is still here for future generations. Although the plan has its critics, some see it as a strong step forward for the state, and other Western state governments are even using the plan as a blueprint to develop their own. Sounds like something you should read up on, right? In the process, you’ll up your personal water-conservation game, and maybe impress other eco-minded folks at parties with your water knowledge.

Understand the system

As your water-knowledge grows and your water use improves, you’ll want to understand the basics of how the right to use water works in Colorado. For starters, memorize this phrase: “First in time, first in right.” That’s your go-to shorthand for the system of prior appropriation, upon which Colorado water use is built. An “appropriation” is basically the act of using water for some “beneficial use,” and the ability to appropriate water is based on seniority — i.e., who got there first — and a water source that is “over-appropriated” basically has more water rights tied to it than it actually has water.

That’s all just a teaser to whet your thirst. Dive in.

Harvest the rain

Remember when it was illegal to catch rainwater in a barrel in Colorado? Well, as of August 2016, rain barrels are now legal in the state. This means that households can now collect up to 110 gallons of rainwater for home use, and experts have shown that it will have no consequential impact on overall groundwater availability. But before you go buy a giant tub and start collecting water for your garden, know the rules and understand why it was controversial in the first place (see previous point on “prior appropriation”). The Colorado State University Extension program has a great fact sheet to give you all the info you need to safely and legally harvest your own water from the sky.

Landscape different

Did you know that Denver Water, the oldest and largest water utility in the state, coined the term “xeriscaping” in 1981? That means Front Rangers should probably do it. “Xeriscaping” basically means landscaping using native plants that promote water conservation because they’re adapted to the climate. It also encourages the use of compost, which can further improve water efficiency, not to mention improving plant health and reducing runoff. Done right, xeriscaping can reduce your residential water use by up to 60 percent. Although it won’t look like a big green lawn, neither must it look like a sagebrush desertscape (although some of us think that’s pretty beautiful). And we should get over our strange attraction with perfectly groomed, totally unnatural green lawns anyhow, especially in a state where they tend to do more harm than good. 

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