Water Under Pressure

Water quality is on the decline in Colorado. The Clean Water Act (CWA) sets the goal that all of the nation’s waters be fishable and swimmable. Yet state water quality assessment reports show that over the past 6 years, the percentage of Colorado’s rivers and streams found to be fishable decreased by 7%. Even more alarming, the percentage of Colorado’s rivers and streams that support all of their classified uses has declined 21% since 1998.


Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

The State of Colorado’s Waters

Water quality is on the decline in Colorado. The Clean Water Act (CWA) sets the goal that all of the nation’s waters be fishable and swimmable. Yet state water quality assessment reports show that over the past 6 years, the percentage of Colorado’s rivers and streams found to be fishable decreased by 7%. Even more alarming, the percentage of Colorado’s rivers and streams that support all of their classified uses has declined 21% since 1998. Additionally, despite ongoing cleanup efforts, the number of stream segments in Colorado that are listed as impaired rose 53% from 1998 through 2006.

Challenges to Improving Water Quality

The sources of this increased pollution are both natural and manmade, the impact of growth and the price of choices made or not made along the way. While land use choices from over a century ago continue to impact our water quality, the greatest impending threat is how we decide to protect our waters as we use our lands and waters today and tomorrow.

Inspection and Enforcement Problems

The biggest challenge to protecting Colorado’s water resources is underfunding and understaffing at the agency charged with this responsibility. The Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) does not have anywhere near enough staffpeople inspecting permit sites and enforcing water pollution laws against violators. In fact, the WQCD is understaffed anywhere from 33 to 80 employees. 

Last year, the WQCD was able to inspect only 0.7% of the active permits given to entities that discharge pollutants into our waterways. Likewise, the WQCD only issued 10 final penalty orders on wastewater formal enforcement actions, while 42 new cases were opened. Obviously, at this rate, the WQCD cannot keep up with Colorado’s growth.

Urban Development

Residential development in Colorado is skyrocketing: from 1990–2000 our population grew by 31% and there was a 22% increase in housing units. More people means more houses, roads, shopping centers, and parking lots. 

The construction of all of these displaces sediment, which, if no preventative measures are taken, will wash off the construction site and into waterways during and after storms. The existence of more impervious surfaces—such as sidewalks, roads, and parking lots—also causes greater runoff during and after storms. Runoff from suburban and urban areas contains sediment, oil and chemicals from cars, fertilizers and pesticides from lawn care, and viruses and bacteria from septic systems.

Energy Development

Colorado is also facing increased pressure from energy development, with drilling expanding rapidly across the state and predicted to increase tenfold in the next decade. In 2006, a record 5,904 permits to drill were approved, which represents a 35% increase over the number granted in 2005 and a 102% increase over the number granted in 2004. As of the end of 2006, Colorado had about 34,000 active wells, and there are currently no requirements for producers to disclose the chemicals they are using at these well sites. 

More wells means a greater potential for pollution. During the construction, production, and maintenance of wells, sediment can flow from construction sites, chemicals kept in pits can leak into waterways, wastes injected into underground wells can leak into groundwater, and hazardous materials can be spilled or run off a site during a storm.

There are regulations in place that require all construction sites across the state, whether for houses, big box stores, or well sites, to implement management practices to prevent sediment and chemicals from being washed into waterways. However, as mentioned above, the agency charged with enforcing these laws is severely underfunded and cannot effectively enforce them.


92% of the water used in Colorado is used for agriculture. Water that runs off of croplands after irrigation can carry large quantities of fertilizers, pesticides, and sediment into rivers and streams. The primary pollutants that show up in Colorado’s waters from agricultural lands are selenium, salts and nitrogen.

The law does not require any pollution control measures for the majority of agricultural activities. Because of this very few are implemented, despite the fact that very simple management measures can make a significant difference in the amount of pollution that enters waterways from agricultural activities. However, while simple, these management practices are not cheap: the cost of implementing them across Colorado is about $50 million per year.


The greatest component of the pollution on impaired streams in Colorado is heavy metals. A significant proportion of these metals drain from some of the more than 23,000 abandoned mines that dot Colorado’s landscape. There is no one left to clean up these mines and it is estimated that it will cost at least $314 million to accomplish the task.

Aside from the cost of cleaning up these mines, another impediment is liability concerns.
Currently, if a local government or non-profit group wants to clean up a particular mine site to improve water quality in a stream, the law could treat them as responsible for any pollution that discharges from the site from that point on. This acts as a significant deterrent to well-meaning cleanup efforts.

Prior Appropriation

Another impediment to clean water is the system that has evolved for assigning water rights. The emphasis within this system has always been on water quantity—who gets how much water when. Historically, there has been very little consideration of water quality within this system or the benefits of leaving some water in streams to protect aquatic life and the environment.


In order to address the increasing pollution that is degrading our waters, we need to know what is actually going into our waters, and from where. We also need to ensure that discharge limits set in permits are enforced. This is the job of the Water Quality Control Division (WQCD), but the WQCD does not have the funding or staff it needs to do its job. As the rates of residential and industrial growth increase in Colorado, it is imperative that the WQCD receive the funding and staff needed to keep up. 

To address pollution from urban development, Colorado needs both better enforcement of existing laws and new legislation to more effectively deal with runoff from development activities. First, the WQCD needs to be adequately funded and staffed so that there is an effective level of inspectors in the field noticing problems with development activities and permits and a sufficient number of enforcement staffpeople back at the office to process any necessary enforcement actions and ensure that corrective action is taken. Second, legislation that better links water and growth and that requires more effective management of stormwater runoff from development activities would help Colorado address the rising volume of this type of pollution. 

To address pollution from energy development, Colorado needs better enforcement of existing laws, as explained above. Colorado also needs the energy industry to be required to report the identities and quantities of the chemicals it uses in its processes, so that these chemicals can be properly monitored and prevented from polluting our waterways.

To address pollution from agricultural activities, we need to find ways to fund and incentivize pollution control practices on agricultural lands. This may include using existing grant and loan programs as well as developing some sort of fee system that allows the costs of pollution control to be paid by the ultimate beneficiary of agricultural activities: the consumer.

To address pollution from mining, two things need to be addressed. First, legislation needs to be passed that eliminates potential liability for certain “Good Samaritans” who want to clean up old mine sites. Second, money must be raised to fund cleanups. This could be done through a fee
on existing mining operations that is put towards a cleanup fund. 

Lastly, Colorado needs to prioritize integrating protection of water quality into the water rights system and encouraging both agricultural and residential water use efficiency. Only by doing this will Colorado accurately value and effectively protect its water resources.