Water-Smart Growth - the Key to Colorado's Future (Part One)

As a youngster who spent his childhood summers playing in the irrigation ditches at my grandparent’s Southern Colorado cattle ranch, I realized at an early age the importance of water to the health and livelihood of rural Colorado. This has been drawn into even tighter focus during my time working for San Isabel Land Protection Trust. Productive agriculture and ranching is impossible without good water rights.


Pictured here: Mike Downey moving water on irrigation day at his family's ranch

These water rights also have numerous secondary benefits not recognized by Colorado law. What farmers and ranchers call “tail water,” or the water that is not utilized by plants or absorbed by soil when agricultural land is irrigated, becomes part of the return flow of a watershed system. Much of it returns to streams and recharges the groundwater. This water also might be used by downstream users, such as other irrigators or municipal water systems.

Tail water could also resurface as a wetland that provides important wildlife habitat in a water-scarce region. This tail water is also critical to supporting greenbelts along rivers and streams that draw in tourists, boaters, fishermen, and hunters. Special places like the Huerfano Valley, the Arkansas Valley, and the Wet Mountain Valley, would not be the same without the water that supports them.

Colorado is growing rapidly. By 2030, Colorado is likely to have an additional 2 million residents, most of whom will reside on the Front Range between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. That growth will put even more pressure on Colorado’s over-tapped water supplies. And every new drop of water diverted to the Front Range will be at the expense of agriculture. In our region, we’ve already observed some of these transfers including the H2O Ranch in Custer County and the CB Ranch in Fremont County. This trend will likely continue.

I believe Colorado is at a major crossroads. In confronting this growth, we face choices that will have serious ramifications for the state’s agriculture and recreation industries. The type of growth on the Front Range will be critical to how much water will be needed, and how much water will be taken from productive agriculture to supply that need.

Stay tuned next week for part 2 of this article . . .

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Downey is the Land Protection Specialist and Colorado Open Lands Fellow for San Isabel Land Protection Trust. When Mike is not working on protecting important and productive ranches, forests, and waters in our region, he can sometimes be found predicting the weather and informing San Isabel staff as to whether or not they should wear layers!


We have protected more than 42,000 acres through 134 conservation easements.

Conservation easements guarantee long-term protection – through generations of landowners.