Water Resources

Colorado is home to the headwaters for four major rivers (the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and South Platte) that flow out of state, supplying water to 19 other states and over 35 million people. Colorado is also the source of many major tributaries to the Colorado River system (Yampa, White, Dolores, Gunnison, San Juan, and San Miguel Rivers, among others), and thousands of smaller waterways. No major rivers flow into Colorado. Population growth and urban development in Colorado are intensifying conflicts between the users of this water, including urban, agricultural and recreational users.

Understanding and addressing water needs in Colorado is fundamental to the survival of the state’s urban and rural communities, as well as its wild places and ecosystems. The state's rapid growth threatens to pit urban populations against healthy river flows and agricultural landscapes. In fact, the Colorado Water Conservation Board estimates that Colorado will face a municipal and industrial supply gap of 630,000 acre-feet per year by 2040. In addition to demand in the state of Colorado, the Colorado River currently provides water to 36 million people and irrigates six million acres of land in the American West and Mexico.

The first-ever State Water Plan was approved in 2015, and recognizes the need to balance environmental and recreational flows for rivers with municipal, industrial, and agricultural water needs. Implementing the plan's recommendations will require significant political will and new financial resources. New ideas integrated into the plan (many from Gates grantees and partners) include detailed planning at the basin level for non-consumptive (i.e. environmental and recreational) water needs and the application of new tools to measure tradeoffs among different types of water needs.

The Foundation supports projects that advance new tools, processes and ideas to realize a long-term, sustainable balance between future urban, agricultural, recreational and environmental needs in the state’s rivers. The Foundation works closely with all relevant stakeholders including policy leaders, agricultural interests, nonprofit advocates, scientists and water resource managers to identify high leverage, high impact investments to balance competing demands and protect the state’s water resources. Aspects of this program may be complementary with Foundation activities focused on land conservation, stewardship, community development and ecosystem services. Looking forward, Foundation staff will continue to support models of cross-sector cooperation and market-based tools, connect land use and water conservation, support instream flows and healthy rivers, explore means to develop better water data and analysis, and advance implementation of the State Water Plan toward balanced water outcomes.