03/08/2011 11:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Filling the Front Range Water Gap

In coming decades, Colorado's Front Range will face booming population growth and a "gap" between water supply and water demand. The discussion of options for meeting the gap continues to focus on old ideas including huge trans-mountain pipelines, which are extremely costly and inflict lasting damage on our rivers, streams and wildlife.

Colorado has better options. Our groups' new report, "Filling the Gap," offers a balanced, realistic blueprint for meeting Front Range water needs through 2050 while protecting our state's waterways and outdoor heritage.

Existing trans-mountain diversions of water from the Western Slope to the Front Range have left the upper Colorado River and scores of its tributaries nearly dry at times. The result is low stream flows, high water temperatures, fewer fish and other indicators of healthy stream habitat.

As Western Slope streams are diverted east, so goes the economic livelihood of many mountain towns and businesses that depend on tourism and recreation.

Many Coloradans live here and most visitors come here because of our state's outstanding outdoor resources and opportunities, from trout fishing to rafting -- it's what makes our state special. Recreation is a multi-billion dollar business in Colorado. Rivers and streams are degraded at the risk of undermining not only our economy but also the high quality of life we enjoy as Coloradans.

Colorado's rivers and streams are at a dangerous tipping point -- and we can no longer take their health for granted in water planning.

Our balanced water plan rests on four solid legs: expanded water conservation, water reuse projects, more water sharing between the agricultural and municipal sectors, and "acceptable planned projects," our name for proposed water supply projects that can meet "smart" guidelines for protecting rivers and the environment.

Conservation is often the cheapest and fastest way to create a new water source. While Denver and other cities have made great strides in promoting conservation, there is much more than could be done. Consider that half of Denver's water use still goes toward outdoor landscaping. By offering incentives for homeowners to modestly reduce turf and water use, Front Range communities can significantly reduce the need for new water sources.

Reusing municipal water is another way to make existing supplies go further. As outlined in our report, water reuse holds huge promise to help reduce the gap between water supply and water demand.

Our plan proposes ag/urban water-sharing arrangements that provide benefits to both cities and farmers. Because it is critical that Colorado preserve its agricultural heritage and open spaces, we recommend innovative sharing arrangements that do not result in a permanent dry-up of irrigated acreage.

Finally, the report identifies proposals for new supply, such as dam upgrades and small-scale storage, that could be acceptable if done right, with minimal damage to natural areas.

"Filling the Gap" identifies some water projects that the conservation groups could accept, if they were developed using a set of economically and environmentally-sound principals for minimizing the harm to streams and rivers. Some of these projects include the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation, the Windy Gap Firming Project, Beebe Draw Aquifer Recharge, East Cherry Creek Valley's Northern Project, as well expansion or enlargement of the Halligan Reservoir, Seaman Reservoir, and Gross Reservoir.

In sum, our recommended portfolio of water solutions would produce 200,000 acre-feet of water in excess of the Front Range's 2050 demands. "Filling the Gap" offers a pragmatic, responsible way to meet Colorado's future water needs without damaging river and streams, recreational opportunities and the quality of life in this state. To access the report, go to

Bart Miller is director of the water program for Western Resource Advocates, a regional conservation organization dedicated to protecting the West's land, air and water. Drew Peternell is director of the Colorado Water Project for Trout Unlimited, a sportsmen's conservation organization with 10,000 members in Colorado. Becky Long is the Water Caucus Coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the largest state-based citizens' group focused on protecting our air, land and water.