Fort Collins Weekly

Hope for the Poudre River
By Gary Wockner

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." -- Winston Churchill

The Cache la Poudre River is deeply threatened, that is certain. The parameters of the debate are about how deeply threatened the Poudre is, and what to do about it.

A recent column in this newspaper by Andrew Boucher highlights this threat. Boucher quotes statistics from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District ( which suggest that the District will drain one-third of the water from Poudre, before it flows through town, to fill the proposed Glade Reservoir. Another organization, the Save The Poudre Coalition (, believes the District will drain closer to one-half of the water out of the Poudre.

There's also debate about just how much worse the dry-ups in the river will be after the proposed Glade Reservoir is built. As those of us who spend time at the Poudre know -- and that is tens-of-thousands of citizens every year -- the Poudre is frequently dry as it flows through town. Further, the river is dry in dozens (if not hundreds) of places every year along the stretch from Fort Collins out to Greeley where the Poudre meets the South Platte River. Due to poor water quality, much of this stretch is designated a "public health hazard" by the State of Colorado and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It's a sad thing, to drain a river, and to debate just "how bad" it will be. It's sadder yet because it doesn't have to happen at all.

Alternatives exist for providing water to northern Colorado that do not involve draining the Poudre River. Not only do alternatives for a water supply solution for growing communities exist, but these alternatives may be considerably cheaper than building dams and reservoirs.

First, significant opportunities exist around water conservation and water delivery efficiency. Experts in conservation and efficiency cite research that suggests that many cities can save up to one-half of their water through educational, incentive, and regulatory programs that help citizens become better stewards of this precious natural resource.

Most of the communities that want the water out of the Poudre River have water-use levels of up to 200 gallons per person, per day. Alternatively, cities that have invested significantly in water conservation have successfully gotten their per capita use down to 150 gallons per day or lower. During the drought of 2002, the City of Aurora, Colorado -- which invests significantly in water conservation -- got its residential water use down to 77 gallons per day. Further, these reductions can occur with no decline in quality of life, and can yield water cheaper than building dams and reservoirs.

Second, there are huge opportunities in partnering with the agricultural community in northern and eastern Colorado to "share" water and enter into mutually beneficial agreements than can be both financially lucrative for farmers and provide water for cities. About 85% of the water that flows down the Poudre River is used for irrigated agriculture, but most of that irrigation occurs through outdated, inefficient systems.

As just one example, about 75% of the farms in the South Platte basin use flood or furrow irrigation, a system that is only 40%-50% efficient in using water to grow crops. Much can be done to help farmers invest in high-efficiency irrigation systems, and then find legal ways to transfer that conserved water back to growing cities. If we can conserve just 15% of agricultural water, we'd have enough water available to double the supply to all the cities along the northern Front Range.

However you add it up, alternatives do exist to draining the Poudre, and to having an endless debate about "just how bad" the Poudre will be. With so much at stake, and so much money proposed to be spent, it only makes sense to weigh alternatives and look for a sustainable solution.

We need good policy and sound thinking, and we need to work to find the opportunity in this difficulty that will provide hope.

Gary Wockner, PhD, ( is a writer, ecologist, and conservation advocate in Fort Collins.

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