Northern Colorado Water Update

By: Bradley D. Wind

Just more than 200 years ago this month, a group of soldiers, naturalists and artists worked their way up the Platte Valley from Omaha to learn a little bit more about the land President Jefferson had bought just a few years earlier.

Stephen Long and his men tromped up the Platte River, in the heat of late June, and they saw a high peak that now bears Long’s name and a treeless landscape covered in dry grasses and prickly pear cactus. It is no wonder they labeled this region the Great American Desert! But in the diaries of the explorers are found tales of enormous bison herds, speedy pronghorn, and comical prairie dogs. And, of course, the native peoples who called this area home. This was no desert – it was a place that could sustain many, if the water resources were shepherded.

Two centuries later, we are still faced with challenges of living in the region’s semi-arid climate, but we also have learned lessons about how to harness the available water resources while preserving the rich ecosystems native to this place. Early settlers knew if water could be saved during the runoff to be used throughout the growing season, the soils would yield abundance. The ditches and reservoirs they built by hand and horse are still in use today.

The next generation of water managers found ways to bring water from other nearby river basins to Northern Colorado, building the Grand Ditch, Michigan Ditch, Chambers Lake and the Laramie River Tunnel to augment the native supplies.

Finally, the biggest change in the region’s hydrology, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, brought the volumetric equivalent of another Poudre River watershed to Northeastern Colorado. The water from the project provided a much-needed supplemental and steady supply to the farming sector and allowed the region’s residents to attract industries that further diversified the economy and set the stage for the communities we see today.

The opportunities found in Northeastern Colorado continue to attract new residents and retain those who were born here. The challenges of a changing climate, increasing regulatory ambitions and growing demand for the resource means there will be no easy pathway to the future.

Climate change is no longer in our future, it’s in our present. Warmer weather and wider precipitation swings have made it imperative that when water is available, we have the storage capacity and capabilities to preserve it for times we know it will be scarce. And during times of scarcity, allow it to be used for an essential component to food production, by municipalities and industries, and, in many instances, the environment. But along the way, we should invest and embrace every strategy and technology available to encourage this resource of scarcity be used with the greatest sense of responsibility.

We are often asked, “Will the constraints in water supply alone limit the region’s population?” Our answer: “If we choose a future without the food and fiber produced locally by irrigated agriculture, many, many more people could call Northern Colorado home.” The cost of such a policy choice, however, could be immense. Once water departs irrigated farmland, it assuredly will not return. The choices we elect today could limit those available to future generations who might see alternative market opportunities for locally grown vegetables or value-added products. In addition, the loss of open space separators between our communities will have an impact on the quality of life of city dwellers, as well.

As the Long Expedition neared the Front Range in 1820, they marveled at the distance from which the Rockies could be seen, and at night, the clear, cool air gave them the opportunity to make measurements to create the most-accurate regional maps yet created.

While those maps showed this area to be a desert, we now know better. Those maps showed a pathway to the vibrant, diverse and beautiful region now known as Northeastern Colorado. Our ongoing community dialog around water supply, water availability, and water demand will be crucial to preserving a place we all call home.

Source: Bradley D. Wind, P.E., is general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, commonly referred to as Northern Water.
June 2022