Colorado places 9th in national water conservation ranking

Lawn sizes in Castle Rock are sharply limited to save water, with some homeowners opting to use artificial turf for convenience and to help keep water bills low. Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News
Lawn sizes in Castle Rock are sharply limited to save water, with some homeowners opting to use artificial turf for convenience and to help keep water bills low. Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

By Jerd Smith

As Western states prepare to double down on saving water, in part to help save the Colorado River, a new ranking shows Colorado in ninth place nationwide for its water-saving laws and policies, and in fourth place among states in the Colorado River Basin.

The ranking, produced by the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), analyzes state policies designed to encourage, or mandate, wise use of water.

Ron Burke, president of AWE, said little progress has been made nationwide since the rankings began in 2012 and with climate change and drought, especially in the West, more work needs to be done quickly.

“Kudos to Colorado and the other states who made the top 10, but Colorado has room for improvement,” Burke said.

Colorado earned 42.5 points out of 89. In its scorecard, AWE recommends the state do more to require drought response plans, reduce water loss in utility delivery systems, and require water rate structures that encourage conservation.

The national average in the rankings was 23 out of 89.

Kevin Reidy is a state water conservation specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board. An adviser to AWE for the ranking project, Reidy said the scorecard is a valuable tool, but doesn’t capture everything Colorado does at the state level.

“The scorecard focuses mostly on state laws and less on state-level incentives and collaboration. Even though Colorado is quite successful in driving state water efficiency policy through cooperative means, we usually don’t rank as high as those states that mandate water efficiency more often,” Reidy said in a statement.

“I think the scorecard is a good tool for state law assessment but in Colorado where we tend to collaborate more than legislate, it might not capture everything that is occurring,” he said.

In January the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a major update to the Colorado Water Plan, a broad-based set of guidelines designed to help address looming water shortages. The state has also recently formed a new task force designed to look at ways to reduce water use on landscapes.

Still, these days the big question in the American West is how quickly and by how much the seven states in the Colorado River Basin (CRB), Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, can reduce water use, as demanded last year by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In the Colorado River Basin, Colorado came in behind the top-ranked California, Arizona and Nevada on AWE’s scorecard.

The ongoing drought, widely believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, has already forced cutbacks in the region, but much more work remains.

“The CRB states, out of necessity, are doing comparatively well,” AWE’s Burke said. “What [Reclamation] has said is cut water use by 20% in the CRB because there is just not enough water. That means there has to be a net savings, not just less water use per capita. It’s going to have to be less water actually used.”

The scorecard looks only at state-level water policies, rather than the policies and programs adopted by local governments and local water utilities. In Colorado many of these entities have already adopted water loss initiatives, rate structures that encourage conservation and drought response plans.

Because Colorado, and many states, are so-called home-rule governments, states have limited authority to impose mandates on county and city governments.

Burke said the scorecard also doesn’t evaluate how much water each state and its communities actually use, in part because the data isn’t widely available, and because focusing on state-level policies is increasingly important, especially as the federal government channels billions of dollars to help conserve water and improve infrastructure nationwide.

“Water use and efficiency occurs largely at the local level, so this is an evaluation of how well states are helping local entities conserve water,” Burke said.

Diana Denwood is a water conservation specialist at Aurora Water and she was among the authors of a 2022 Colorado WaterWise report, the State of Water Conservation in Colorado, that focuses on local, individual water providers in Colorado. Colorado WaterWise is a nonprofit alliance of water providers and others that advocates for water conservation.

“In terms of what Colorado is doing, we are seeing that there are a lot of great water conservation programs that are being implemented by water providers. But of course there is always room for improvement,” Denwood said.

The WaterWise report found, among other things, that 23% of water providers surveyed do not have dedicated conservation staff and 58% do not have dedicated conservation budgets, other than staff time, to implement programs.

Colorado Springs Utilities is one of the largest municipal water suppliers in Colorado and, like others, is ramping up its water saving efforts because of drought, climate change and the crisis on the Colorado River.

Colorado Springs Utilities’ Julia Gallucci, water conservation supervisor, said AWE’s scorecard is an important component in evaluating how the U.S. is performing.

“This is a great data point related to water conservation. Most states are home rule states so it doesn’t measure how municipalities are doing. But I do think the more critical the resource becomes the more you have to have these measures at a statewide level regardless of home rule,” Gallucci said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

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