How businesses are investing in Colorado’s water future

15 Mile Reach

GreenBiz, February 2022

Miners and ranchers may have put Colorado’s economy on the map, but industries such as aerospace, finance and outdoor recreation are diversifying the economic portfolio of the business-friendly state.

From small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, it’s clear that companies of all shapes and sizes want to operate, expand and invest in the Centennial State. The high quality of life is no secret, and it remains a top reason why Colorado has had one of the fastest growing populations over the past decade. However, with growth comes added stress on its infrastructure. And one area where this is most apparent is the state’s blue infrastructure: water.

Unpredictable water supply puts Colorado economy at risk

Businesses are starting to take note of the state’s water resources and the challenges facing western states. Climate change, drought, wildfires and population growth are stressing its water systems as never before. Record-low water levels made national headlines this year, leading to the first federally declared water shortage in the Colorado River Basin. In addition, outdated water policies have led to inefficient use of our resources and politically charged debates over who has control of water, often pitting Western Slope against Front Range.

Just how valuable is the Colorado River to the state? A 2014 study from Arizona State University measured the river’s economic impact and found that if Colorado River water was no longer available to residents, businesses, industry and agriculture for just one year, nearly 60 percent of Colorado’s gross state product — $189 billion — would be lost. More than 2 million jobs would also be gone, with the hardest-hit private sectors being healthcare and social services; professional, scientific and technical services; finance and insurance; retail trade; and real estate and rental.

Businesses need water to operate, whether to make a beverage, manufacture computer parts, irrigate a baseball field or lead a fly-fishing expedition. An unpredictable water supply puts operations — and the state’s economic growth — at risk, so how can they improve water security to ensure continued success?

Fly fisherman in the Upper Yampa Fly fisherman in the Upper Yampa Conservation District near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Dana Dallavalle/Colorado Water Trust



Opportunity for business community to lead the way

“Our water challenges are urgent, and they are solvable,” said Todd Reeve, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and the founder of its Business for Water Stewardship (BWS) program, which works specifically with the business community to transform how it values, uses and manages water. “The key is collaboration among all water users. After all, when there isn’t enough water to go around, everyone loses. We need all hands on deck, and businesses are stepping up and doing their part.”

Business for Water Stewardship helps companies large and small move beyond just reducing their water footprint by advancing collective action that accelerates real, measurable and lasting solutions for water, nature and business. “Right now, companies have the opportunity to be transformational leaders in water stewardship,” said Reeve. “The private sector can leverage its innovation and critical thinking to develop strategies for large-scale, system-wide changes that will address our complex water challenges.”

Bold commitments drive transformative change

Tech giant Intel has led the way on sustainable water management for more than two decades, through internal conservation projects and efficient water management systems. In 2017, Intel expanded its water stewardship commitments by announcing a goal to restore 100 percent of its global freshwater use by 2025. And in 2020, Intel announced a more ambitious commitment to achieve net-positive water by 2030, aiming to become the first technology company to return and restore more freshwater than it uses, and one of the few companies addressing this challenge at a global scale.

The Colorado River and the Rio Grande River basins are critical for Intel, as they are the main watersheds that supply water for manufacturing sites downstream in Arizona and New Mexico.

Our water challenges are urgent, and they are solvable.

“A reliable water supply is essential for semiconductor manufacturing and our communities,” said Fawn Bergen, corporate sustainability manager at Intel. “The Colorado River, the Rio Grande River and their tributaries provide water to millions of people, supporting farming, ranching, rural communities, recreation, and habitat for a healthy and resilient ecosystem. This is why our company has made — and continues to make — significant investments in our watersheds and our own operations to support water resources and use water efficiently. We have a responsibility to maintain and positively impact this resource.”

Well-known brands leverage their influence to raise awareness

As one of the world’s largest B Corps, Danone North America, based in Broomfield, is underscoring its promise to use business as a force for good, leveraging its brand recognition to highlight the challenges in the Colorado River basin and engage people in water conservation. Danone North America’s plant-based brand Silk has long been a leader, supporting projects that restore flows across many Colorado rivers.

“It’s important to us to be a good steward,” said Deanna Bratter, head of sustainable development at Danone. “Our frame of action at Danone is ‘One Planet. One Health,’ and Colorado embraces this thinking with its deep respect of the natural world and the interconnectivity with its people.”

The Colorado Rockies hosted the annual All-Star Game this year, and Major League Baseball (MLB) used the national stage to demonstrate its commitment to protecting the Colorado River. In partnership with BEF, the Green Sports Alliance and Colorado Water Trust, MLB and the Colorado Rockies are restoring 30 million gallons of water to the Colorado River, the equivalent to the estimated water footprint of the Rockies and Coors Field for the 2021 season, making it the first “net zero water” MLB venue in the league’s history.

“MLB is committed to reducing our league’s water footprint and restoring watersheds that our sport thrives on,” said Paul Hanlon, senior director of ballpark operations and sustainability for MLB. “We are excited to work with BEF and the Green Sports Alliance to support and incentivize water conservation across all 30 of our clubs and their communities.”

Proactive, hyper-local strategy yields environment and economic returns

In Montrose, David Dragoo, executive chairman for Mayfly Outdoors, a Certified B Corporation that manufactures fly fishing equipment, works from his office on the banks of the Uncompahgre River. He’s a passionate advocate for rivers, and for the past few years he’s been leading efforts to revitalize this previously underappreciated waterfront and turn it into a combination of residential, commercial and recreational spaces. “We’ve taken a hyper-local strategy to conservation,” said Dragoo. “We want to try and help what’s in our backyard first, do it really well, and expand from there.”

Dragoo purchased 164 acres of land along the Uncompahgre River and set up a new headquarters for his company. Mayfly then donated a portion of the property back to the community for open space and new trail expansions. The economic development project has attracted other businesses from the outdoor industry and has brought in millions of dollars in grant money, which has funded the river’s partial restoration and the development of a trail along the waterfront.

“For businesses in the outdoor recreation industry, our streams, rivers and mountains are our infrastructure,” said Dragoo. “Colorado is a hub for the industry because the state values public lands. If you want to operate in Colorado, you have an obligation to protect public lands and uphold these values.”

Bridge in the 15 Mile Reach, Colorado River


Dam in the 15-Mile Reach section of the Colorado River. Photo by Kate Ryan/Colorado Water Trust


State welcomes participation from business community

In addition to raising awareness about water security and supporting conservation projects on the ground, Colorado’s business community is also helping shape the state’s water future by taking part in the development of sound water policies at the local and state level.

The state has welcomed participation from the business community in developing the Colorado Water Plan, a blueprint with measurable objectives for water sustainability across the state. In fact, the Water Plan doesn’t work without them. Russ Sands, section chief of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state’s overseer of the plan, said the Water Plan is unique because of its inclusivity of stakeholders. “Everyone has a seat at the table, everyone is part of the conversation, and it is that collaboration that will make the Water Plan successful,” said Sands.

“It gives businesses an opportunity to have a say in water projects that directly affect them. We want them to be a part of the process. It’s the business’ water plan, too,” said Jojo La, policy adviser for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Businesses are participating in the Water Plan’s local roundtables, advocating for full funding and implementation of the Water Plan, and partnering with coalitions such as For the Love of Colorado and Water for Colorado to advance bi-partisan, common sense water policies.

Now just over five years in, the Colorado Water Plan has made notable progress on more than 75 percent of its action areas and has provided more than $483 million in funding through grants and loans to more than 320 projects around the state.

Long-term success throughout the state

Examples of successful business-supported projects can be found across the state. Near Steamboat Springs, restoration efforts along the Yampa River illustrate the benefits of long-term planning. Back in 2002, a severe drought decimated fisheries and shut down popular recreation activities such as fishing and tubing, crippling the local economy. A decade later, drought was again wreaking havoc on the river, reducing the river’s flow to just 5 percent. Determined to bring the river back to life and get ahead of any future droughts, the Colorado Water Trust crafted an innovative solution that orchestrated the emergency release of water that year from an upstream reservoir.

With the help of companies such as Danone North America and Silk, the Water Trust has been able to spearhead continued efforts to release water to the river when it suffers from low flows. Nearly 10 years on and still going, 4.5 billion gallons and 13,850 acre-feet have been returned to the Yampa. At times, these boosted flows have accounted for over half of the flow of the Yampa River.

We want to try and help what’s in our backyard first, do it really well, and expand from there.

In the Western Slope, a critical 15-mile stretch of the main stem of the Colorado River near Grand Junction has seen drastic declines in flow, putting several federally endangered fish species at further risk. In an example of creative problem solving, the Colorado Water Trust worked with local water users the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association to design an agreement to allow them to secure water from upstream sources, funded by contributions from private companies including Coca-Cola, Intel, Danone North America and MLB.

The water is delivered to a downstream hydropower plant. Once the water cycles through the plant, it is released back to the 15-Mile Reach during critical times of low flow to improve habitat for the native endangered and threatened fish species. In addition, the power plant generates clean electricity, and downstream there is more water for water in the river for people to recreate in the summer in the city of Grand Junction. Efforts are still underway, but so far, the 15-Mile Reach collaboration has restored nearly 500 million gallons of water to the Colorado River.

Another large-scale restoration success is taking place in the southeast corner of the state, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, where Trout Unlimited has been working for decades to protect the watershed and restore wildlife habitat. BEF and its business partners, including Intel and Danone North America, are contributing to the restoration of the Upper Rio Grande’s winter flow. The river is naturally lower in winter months, but with water stored upstream in reservoirs for agricultural and community use, the depleted winter flows have become detrimental to trout and other aquatic species. Trout Unlimited is leading a partnership with agencies, farmers and water managers and is using new tools to flexibly manage, store and deliver water during critical times of the year to increase flows and facilitate groundwater recharge. During pilot implementation in 2016-2017, winter flows on the Conejos River and Upper Rio Grande were some of the best in recorded history — this led to improved habitat for fish, greater certainty for irrigators and important groundwater recharge. Based on the positive results, Trout Unlimited and the project partners have expanded the scale and impact of this work.

The path forward

As a headwaters state, Colorado is the center of the West’s water crisis. It has the opportunity to be a model for the downstream states and the rest of the country, by demonstrating, through its actions and policies, how it is not only planning for the water it has right now but also preparing for an uncertain future, as climate change and a growing population continue to strain its water resources.

The business community is proving to be an emerging champion for advancing water conservation and restoration, and leveraging the resources of the private sector is helping to catalyze large-scale water solutions that benefit nature, businesses and communities.

“If I had one wish that would help solve our water crisis,” said Russ Sands. “It would be for us all to see each other in water. It’s not political, and our understanding of each other will be the only way to find success. The most radical thing we can do is get everyone to agree on the same thing.”


Vanessa Vaughn

Original Article