Conservation in Colorado

In a headwaters state with a semi-arid climate, water supplies are limited. Compounding matters, water demand across the state is high and only expected to grow: Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs (DOLA, 2015) projects the state’s population to nearly double to 8.6 to 10 million people by 2050. As Colorado’s Water Plan (State of Colorado, 2015a) points out, this population growth will create a significant need for an additional 600,000 to one million acre-feet (AF) of water annually to meet future municipal and industrial (including self-supplied industrial) demands. Furthermore, besides managing its own water security, Colorado must ensure approximately two-thirds of the water it produces annually passes out of the state for interstate and international legal obligations (Water Education Colorado [WEco], 2021).

According to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 (Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB], 2011), Coloradoans have the potential to save between 160,000 AF and 460,000 AF by 2050 through “active” conservation and another 154,000 AF through “passive” conservation annually.

Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 projected water savings by 2050 at different conservation levels. Colorado Foundation for Water Education [WEco], 2016.

The Colorado Water Plan (2015) set a “stretch goal” of 400,000 AF of municipal and industrial water saved through active conservation savings annually statewide by 2050, which has the potential to fill most of the supply gap. The following discusses the State’s plan to close the supply gap through different conservation and efficiency measures for different users.

Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency

Agricultural water is used for livestock and to irrigate crops, allowing the industry to generate approximately $5 billion in revenues annually in Colorado (WEco, 2021). Due to the state’s semi-arid climate, a significant quantity of water is necessary to sustain agricultural activities: of the total amount of water withdrawn or diverted statewide, approximately 86% goes to agricultural uses (WEco, 2016). In terms of consumptive use, agricultural water use accounts for 89% of the statewide total, or approximately 4.7 million AF (WEco, 2016; State of Colorado, 2015). While this is a significant amount of water consumptively used, the CWCB (2011) reports that crops grown within the state (as of 2010) could stand to use an additional 2 million AF in order to be fully irrigated. As the state’s water supply gap continues to widen, the number of irrigated acres is expected to decline 15-20% by 2050 due to urbanization and water transfers; however, agriculture is expected to continue to use the majority of Colorado’s water (State of Colorado, 2015).

There are several ways to increase efficiency in agricultural water use, as well as a number of opportunities to stretch water supplies to help meet future needs.

Municipal Water Conservation and Efficiency

Municipal water, often referred to as M&I water, is used by Coloradans in their homes, yards, businesses, firefighting, and (smaller) industry. Annual M&I deliveries from surface and groundwater sources account for approximately 7% of total statewide deliveries, and M&I consumes approximately 7% of all the water consumed in the state (WEco, 2016; CWCB, 2011; State of Colorado, 2015).

M&I use can be broken down into three categories: indoor use, outdoor use, and water loss in distribution systems. Historically, outdoor use (primarily landscape irrigation) has accounted for more than half of annual domestic water use in the state, but from 2006-2016 this trend has changed toward a division of 60% indoor use and 40% outdoor use (WEco, 2016). Indoor use varies considerably, depending upon the number of people in a household, plumbing fixtures, appliances, lot size, and other factors. The largest water users inside the home are toilets, clothes washers, faucets, and showers (CSU Extension). The pie chart below illustrates the typical household’s indoor use of water in Colorado (figure from CSU Extension).

Modeling from the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative estimates that M&I has the potential to save 160,000-461,000 AF by 2050 through “active” conservation (CWCB, 2011). Additionally, another 43,000-61,000 AF of water could potentially be saved with more reuse of existing water supplies (WEco, 2016; CWCB, 2011). Based on population projections and under passive conservation, the CWCB (2011) estimates M&I water demands to increase from 975,000 AF to 1.36 million AF by 2035, and to 1.5 to 1.8 million AF by 2050.

Passive Conservation vs. Active Conservation

For technical analysis purposes, the CWCB has categorized conservation actions into two categories: Passive and Active. Passive conservation results from the replacement of old indoor fixtures and appliances with more efficient ones and is used by the CWCB to reduce demand projections. Active conservation results from the concerted effort of water providers and their customers and is used by the CWCB to address the water supply gap.

“Every acre-foot of conserved water used to meet new demands is an acre-foot of water that does not need to come from other existing uses.”

(State of Colorado, 2015: Executive Summary p.30).

Water Conservation vs. Water Efficiency

While often used interchangeably, water conservation and water efficiency actually have different meanings. Water conservation refers to measures that provide verifiable, permanent savings or a reduction in the amount of water consumed. Water efficiency refers to reducing the amount of water used to accomplish a function, task, or result. In other words, water efficiency is doing more with less water.


The following examples illustrate the difference between the two terms:

Washing dishes

  • Conservation: Only running the dishwasher when it is full
  • Efficiency: Using an ENERGY-STAR dishwasher that uses less than 5 gallons of water per dish load


Watering the lawn/garden/field

  • Conservation: Growing native and/or drought-resistant grasses/crops, as well as watering during cooler times of the day when evaporation rates are lowest
  • Efficiency: Utilizing efficiency technologies, such as moisture sensors, drip irrigation systems, and irrigation control systems

Typical Household’s Indoor Use of Water in Colorado

Chart recreated from CSU Extension

Colorado Consumptive Water Use

Chart recreated from Colorado Water Plan (2015). Note that figures represent consumptive use (water permanently removed from immediate water environment) by each sector, and therefore are lower than total water withdrawn or diverted.

Commercial and Industry Water Conservation & Efficiency

Commercial and industrial water use is also commonly referred to as self-supplied industrial (SSI) use, because large industrial water users often have their own water supplies (separate from public water systems) or lease raw water from others (CWCB, 2011). Generally, water for industries is used for energy development, snowmaking, thermoelectric power generation, food processing, and large industries such as breweries.

Together these industries require approximately 1.1% of Colorado’s total annual deliveries, but business and industry also claim a substantial portion of municipal supplies (WEco, 2016; CWCB, 2011). Of the average 5.3 million AF consumed statewide annually, SSI consumes about 4%, or about 212,000 AF (State of Colorado, 2015). Due to the wide variety of water users within the SSI category, sub-sectors range from very high to very low water consumption (Kohli, Frenken & Spottorno, 2010).

Based on projections, the State estimates current industrial consumptive use to increase to between 236,000 and 322,000 AF by 2050, requiring an additional 48,000 to 134,000 AF annually to meet future demands (CWCB, 2011; State of Colorado, 2015). Within the past few years, a number of innovations have come to light for industrial users that have the potential to conserve not only water, but also energy. In order to assist in closing the looming supply gap, instituting these new innovations will require overcoming a number of hurdles, including increasing the understanding of options available, cost assistance in implementing the new technologies, and overcoming indifference in water pricing, among others (CWCB, 2016).

Chapter 6, Section 6.3 of Colorado’s Water Plan: Water Conservation & Reuse by the State of Colorado (2015)

This section examines water conservation, reuse, land use, agricultural water conservation, self-supplied industrial (SSI) conservation, and state agency conservation. These water management strategies will help Colorado close the water supply gap while minimizing trade-offs that other solutions might create.

Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation (2nd ed.) by the Water Education Colorado (2016)

This Citizens Guide looks at the current water conservation technologies, incentive programs, regulations and policies promoting efficient water use in Colorado. Not a “how-to” book, but a reference for those who need a balanced overview of the opportunities and challenges for water conservation in Colorado today.

Guidebook of Best Practices for Municipal Water Conservation in Colorado by Colorado WaterWise

The Best Practices Guidebook is a planning tool prepared for the purpose of improving and enhancing water efficiency in Colorado.  The Guidebook offers detailed descriptions of specific water conservation measures, program elements, regulations, policies, and procedures that can be implemented by Colorado water providers to help ensure reliable and sustainable water supplies for future generations.

WaterSense: Start Saving website from the EPA

This website provides several tips and recommendations for saving water indoors and outdoors, as well as a variety of ways to reduce energy consumption.

Colorado Department of Local Affairs [DOLA]. (2015). Population Forecasts – 5 year increments, 2000-2050. Retrieved from

Water Education Colorado [WEco]. (2016). Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation (2nd ed.). Retrieved from

—–. (2021). Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law (5th ed.). Retrieved from

Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB]. (2011). Colorado’s Water Supply Future, Statewide Water Supply Initiative, 2010. Retrieved from

State of Colorado. (2015a). Chapter 5: Water Demands. In Colorado’s Water Plan. Retrieved from

—–. (2015b). Chapter 6, Section 6.3: Water Conservation and Reuse. In Colorado’s Water Plan. Retrieved from

CSU Extension. (n.d.). Water Conservation in the Home. Retrieved from