How low will it go?

Colorado may face a dry and difficult future of fighting for water

  • Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District has challenged the conventional wisdom about how much Colorado River water remains for Colorado to develop. He says it's not much.

    Jim Pokrandt, CRWCD
  • Kayaking in Reflection Canyon beneath the 140-foot-high "bathtub ring" of Lake Powell. When this photograph was taken in April 2005, the reservoir had lost nearly 70 percent of its total water volume. The reservoir was last full in 1999.

  • From "Medieval drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin," Geophysical Research Letters Vol. 34, L10705, 24 May 2007. David M. Meko, Connie A. Woodhouse, Christopher A. Baisan, Troy Knight, Jeffrey J. Lukas, Malcolm K. Hughes, and Matthew W. Salzer.
  • Transmountain diversion projects from Colorado’s Western Slope.

    Sources: CRWCD, Colorado Division Of Water Resources
  • A 2007 State of Colorado internal document showing Colorado doesn't have nearly enough water to accommodate future growth.


Eric Kuhn is not the person you'd expect to deliver ominous revelations about Colorado's future.

Kuhn runs the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which represents 15 counties on the state's Western Slope. Compared to some of Colorado's other water agencies, the River District leads a relatively low-profile existence on one floor of a small office building in the mountain town of Glenwood Springs. The district has 23 employees, a dog-friendly office policy and a vehicle fleet composed mainly of Subarus, all of which gives the enterprise the folksy charm of an REI catalog. 

At the age of 59, Kuhn is resistant to many of the most rudimentary conventions of the water business -- things like bolo ties and golf -- and he is not particularly partial to the back-slapping bonhomie in which even the staunchest water adversaries often engage. He favors jeans and Nikes, and sometimes leaves the office to walk a footpath along the river and turn over problems in his mind.

Kuhn has a warm personality and a fierce, focused intelligence. He devotes a great deal of energy to understanding things like the relative performance characteristics of various types of weather radar, and he has been known to wander off in the middle of a conversation when an important breakthrough materializes in his head. "He's one of these scary-brilliant people," says his wife, Sue. "It's just kind of how he's wired."

He also has something of the manner of a well-read naval officer -- which, it turns out, he once was. He spent six years aboard submarines, spying on the Soviets' nuclear weapons program. It's tempting to think that Kuhn's way of thinking about the Colorado River was shaped by those long deployments in the murky depths, when his submarine's survival depended on the intelligent interpretation of what little data could be gathered.

Kuhn has lately become obsessed with one of the bigger riddles hanging over Colorado's future, and his quest for answers has challenged some of the fundamental tenets of the state's water orthodoxy. 

"I've always been concerned that our reliable water supply is a lot less than what we've been suggesting," he says. "I think there's a lot less available than we thought there was."

More than 3 million people in Colorado -- roughly two-thirds of the state's population -- rely on water from the Colorado River. The river sustains alfalfa, apples and pears, Olathe sweet corn, and ski and ranch towns across the Western Slope. Yet its water may be even more important to the Front Range -- Denver and its cluster of urban and suburban satellites that lie hard against the eastern foothills of the Rockies.

More than a dozen tunnels channel water underneath the Continental Divide to roughly 2.5 million people on the Front Range. Moreover, the state is expected to grow by 2.9 million people over the next 25 years, and the Colorado River has long been seen as the only real source of water for the future.

So it's not surprising that water managers have, for years, privately asked: How much more of the Colorado River can the state use?

Publicly, the state's water managers tend to stick to a time-worn mantra: Under the terms of the interstate treaties that govern the river, Colorado still has as much as 1.5 million acre-feet left to develop. That's enough water for about 12 million new residents, more than four times the state's official population projection for the next quarter of a century.

But there has always been an unspoken acknowledgment of a much grimmer possibility. Six other states also rely on the Colorado River. And between the peculiarities of the so-called Law of the River and mistaken assumptions about the river's long-term performance, Colorado may have to content itself with little more than "the right to leftovers," as two observers once put it. In a severe drought, in fact, cities and farms within the state could be pitted against each other in a fight for water.

That always seemed like an abstract possibility, until just such a drought wrapped its hands around the river in 1999, and kept them there right up to the present day. And so Kuhn decided it was time he figured out just how much water was left for Colorado -- and, by extension, how long the state could continue to grow.

Until recently, "the thought in Colorado was that it would take another hundred years," Kuhn says. "But the water supply we thought we had isn't there."

Anonymous says:
Feb 23, 2009 04:09 PM
Assuming we needed another reason not to move forward with oil shale development on the western slope, an oil shale industry producing 2.5 MMBbl/d would require between 105 and 315 million gallons of water per day, not including the additional requirements resulting from the related population growth.
Anonymous says:
Feb 23, 2009 08:19 PM
When are people EVER going to realize that our natural resources are finite, that we CANNOT grow exponentially forever, and that we need to BY CHOICE limit population growth? No one wants to face this. The only intelligent thing to do is have 2 children or preferably less.It is just insane to not try to live within our means.
Anonymous says:
Feb 24, 2009 07:51 PM
Just want to add my appreciation to the person that mentions a population limit. This is such a sensible truth. I have never understood why people think they should have so many children. Let us take care of the ones we already have.
Anonymous says:
Mar 06, 2009 12:26 AM
The US has been below its replacement birth rate for decades. It's immigration that overloads our capacity.
Anonymous says:
Mar 17, 2009 10:17 AM
The US population growth is half the problem. I don't have the exact numbers, but for the sake of the point, 1 American kid probably consumes as many resources as 10 or more poor kids in a developing country. How many Guatemalan teenagers have their own car, a closet full of clothes, a cell phone, laptop, and iPod? It is a combination of lifestyle and population growth. We're living large on borrowed resources, and just like the credit crunch, things will be bad when we're called to pay the bill.
Anonymous says:
Feb 23, 2009 08:39 PM
The underlying problem is that we exceed the earth's carrying capacity by roughly a factor of roughly six. River water is not the only resource that is not sustainable. There is no resource on earth that can sustain a level of comfort anywhere near ours indefinitely.
Anonymous says:
Feb 23, 2009 08:42 PM
Delete one of those 'roughly's. I did.
Anonymous says:
Mar 06, 2009 09:56 AM
The mantra of the West seems to be "Grow or Die". Most people don't realize how harmful rapid growth is to the environment and the economy. When will economists/economics teachers start discussing/teaching this? Until things change from a mega-growth based economy, we are doomed! And please, all of you people who are concerned about over-population and its effects, keep speaking up!
Anonymous says:
Mar 21, 2009 01:31 AM
We are looking at the end of industrial civilization, whether anybody votes to manage the change or just dries up and blows away. Small, more self-sufficient communities, with the emphasis on community, are the future. At least we won't have to sit it traffic for an hour to get to work-- or transport onions from Mexico to the East Coast. This is one of those profound social and technological evolutions that forever mark history. "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the aisle.." "If you can't lend a hand, get out of the way-- for the times, they're a'changin'." --Dylan
Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2010 08:45 AM
God created every thing
Susan Dietrich Schneider
Susan Dietrich Schneider says:
Mar 13, 2015 09:47 AM
Let's all GO millions of animals' lives, save our own lives, save inestimable millions of gallons of water, SAVE THE PLANET!!!