The Food-Water Nexus

The Problem

Feeding the world population requires an expansive agricultural regime, involving large irrigation systems and massive amounts of water.  Failure to use this water efficiently results in substantial water waste.  The water waste problem, however, reaches much deeper than the surface issue of irrigation practices.  In fact, the wasting of food before it is consumed results in the wasting of the water used to grow and produce that food.  It is estimated on average that nearly $250 billion in food is wasted each year worldwide.  In the United States, food losses cost an estimated $48 billion, corresponding to 10.5 trillion gallons of misused water.  The bottom line is that wasting food directly implicates wasting water.

This dual waste is a significant problem considering projected population growth.  A United Nations’ study estimated that by 2075 the world population will increase to a staggering 9.5 billion, adding over three billion extra mouths to fill.  With one billion people worldwide currently underfed, feeding this additional population poses a real problem.

According to an Institute of Mechanical Engineers report, almost 70% of the world’s freshwater is used to irrigate and grow crops.  Because nearly half of those crops go to waste before consumption, 35% of the world’s freshwater is also used inefficiently.  In developing countries, waste primarily occurs in the post-harvest phase, stemming from insect infestation and inefficient storage.  In developed countries, waste occurs at the other end of the food-supply chain.  Here, approximately 40% of food is lost at food retailers or thrown away by consumers.  Moreover, because developed country food prices pale in comparison to other household costs, food waste is unfortunately not a high priority for many citizens in developed countries.


Addressing the Problem

The problem of water waste lies in every link of the food production chain – from the fields to the table, and effective solutions must address every link.  Many creative ideas exist, and the simple ones begin with the fields, food retailers, and consumers.  In the field, farmers require better harvesting technologies, transportation, and storage facilities.  Agriculture must implement more efficient irrigation techniques to ensure additional crop production with less water.  Proper packaging can help extend the shelf life of food, thus reducing post-harvest and transportation food losses.  Food retailers should implement better inventory systems to ensure that stocked food is not thrown away before purchase.  And finally, consumer behavior must change.  Although likely difficult, purchasing habits should match actual consumption before food spoilage, and consumers must stop throwing away significant food portions.



As the world population grows the demand for food and agriculture will increase, causing global agricultural production to further strain limited water resources.  A logical approach to solving this dual problem requires reducing the waste of agricultural goods along with more efficient irrigating methods to ensure sufficient water is available in the future.




The Green River

While the Green River, which runs through Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, is only a tributary of the Colorado River, it has still become a major source of debate and controversy among the three states’ residents and lawmakers.  The Green River starts in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming and then winds 730 miles downward toward the ocean running through places such as the Browns Park and Dinosaur National Monument.  Many people from all over the nation love the Green River because it carved out some of America’s most iconic canyons and is seen as one of the most beautiful waterways in the nation.  The river is also valued as home to several threatened and endangered species, including the bonytail and humpback chub, the razorback sucker, and the Colorado pikeminnow.



Recently, serious debate unfolded over the fate of the Green River and Colorado’s ever increasing water deficit.  A new study from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation indicates Colorado will have at least a nine percent decline in water flow by 2050.  The study projected significant impacts on fish and fishing as well as negative impacts on other recreation.  White water rafting, which brings in at least $4.2 million a year for local businesses, would be impacted particularly hard.  While Colorado has allowed more than it is legally required to flow downstream, other states are already violating the 1922 Compact for the Lower Water Basin by taking more than their legal share of water from the river.  Many politicians and water developers have put forward different ideas in recent years to deal with the water deficit, but one of the most controversial plans is constructing a pipeline to take water from the Green River.


Flaming Gorge Pipeline

The pipeline, proposed by Aaron Million, is known as the Flaming Gorge pipeline.  The proposal calls for a 500 mile water pipeline to pump eighty-one billion gallons of water per year out of the Green River in Wyoming for use in Colorado, which amounts to approximately twenty to thirty percent of the river’s annual flow.  At this time, the pipeline would cost between seven and nine billion dollars without including any costs to deal with the massive environmental impacts the pipeline would cause.  The State of Colorado’s Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) initiated a preliminary study on the pipeline, but the CWCB denied additional funding in January of 2013 for a subsequent, more intensive study.

The pipeline creates several concerns, one of which is how likely Utah and Wyoming will let the project go unchallenged despite the significant potential impact on their states.   Additionally, the pipeline lacks substantial popular support in any of the three states it directly impacts.  In fact, surveys of Colorado residents show that seventy-six percent of residents prefer a solution for the state’s water issues that focuses on using existing water more efficiently rather than building a pipeline.  American Rivers, a non-profit seeking protection of the United States’ rivers and streams, listed the Green River as the second most endangered river in a 2012 national study, mostly because of the proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline.


Recent Developments

In the face of the recent Bureau of Reclamation study and urgings from the public to look at conservation measures, the CWCB’s decision to stop funding the second study of Flaming Gorge pipeline may forecast trouble for the project.  Some even see abandonment of the study as an implied rejection of the project.  In the next few months, Colorado lawmakers will set a future course for the state’s water usage, which will impact generations of residents.  Any measure these lawmakers choose will also set a tone for the rest of the region on dealing with this increasingly desperate water situation.  Hopefully, Colorado chooses to set a tone of interstate cooperation that places conservation and smart water use above more environmentally questional proposals.



Heading Photo Copyright Don Cload and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence


The Colorado River Basin (“the Basin”) spans parts of seven western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  The Basin currently provides water to around 40 million people and 4 million acres of irrigated agricultural land, making it one of most important watersheds in the western United States.  Beginning in January of 2010 and lasting for three years, the Department of the Interior funded a supply and demand study of water use in the Basin through the Bureau of Reclamation and its WaterSMART program.  Completed in December 2012, the published full report of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (“Study”) can be found in the links provided below.


The Study

The Study evaluated future imbalances in the watershed over the next 50 years, up to year 2060.  The Study, however, did not result in any decision on how exactly the future imbalances will be addressed.  Performed in four phases, the Study (1) assessed the water supply of the watershed; (2) assessed the demands for water within the basin; (3) analyzed the reliability of the computer models; and (4) developed and evaluated strategies to decrease the imbalance. The Study found the average imbalance between supply and demand for water would be more than 3.2 million acre-feet.  Most of this imbalance is due to an increase in demand from municipal and industrial users because of an estimated doubling of the population within the Basin.  The study estimated that by 2060 the population could be approximately 76.5 million people.


It is important to note that any future water supply and demand scenarios predicted within the watershed are highly uncertain because an infinite number of possibilities exist.  While no study will be exact, the Bureau of Reclamation analyzed four different scenarios for both supply and demand.  On the supply side, four scenarios exist: (1) an Observed Resample scenario that looked at water tends over the past 100 years; (2) a Paleo Resampled scenario that looked at water trends over the past 1,250 years; (3) a Paleo Conditioned scenario that looked at water trends over the past 1,250 years but conditioned on the water values observed over the past 100 years; and (4) a Downscaled GCM Projected scenario estimating that the climate will continue to warm substantially over the next few decades.  This last scenario estimated that the natural water flow within the basin will decrease by approximately 9% over the next 50 years.  On the demand side, four scenarios also exist: (1) a Current Projected Growth model; (2) a Slow Growth model; (3) a Rapid Growth model; and (4) an Enhanced Environment Growth model accounting for enhanced environmental stewardship.  All the scenarios were then run in different combinations through the Colorado River Simulation System in RiverWare software, obtaining a range of potential future system conditions.


The Study next evaluated more than 150 options and strategies on how to resolve imbalances in the watershed.  The options and strategies can be generally organized into four groups.  The first group included options that increase water supply such as reuse, desalination, and importation.  The second group included options that reduce water demand from both M&L and agricultural conservation.  The third group included options that modify operations such as transfers & exchanges and water banking.  Finally the last group included options that focus on governance and implementation of water such as stakeholder committees, population control, and reallocation.


Finally, the Study listed ten general areas of options and strategies seeking to resolve water imbalances that are realistic to implement within the watershed: water conservation and reuse; water banks; watershed management; augmentation; water transfers; tribal water; environmental flows; data and tool development; climate science research; and partnerships.  The Bureau of Reclamation closed public comments on the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study on April 19, 2013, and all comments will be summarized and considered in planning activities.


Brief Comments on the Study

The best solution laid out in the Study is water conservation.  Because irrigated agriculture is responsible for approximately 70% of watershed water use, conservation is this sphere could result in significant savings.  Effective conservation can also occur in cities by reducing water use in outdoor landscapes because half of all city water use is involved in such endeavors.  With desalination technology rapidly evolving, it could become another very attractive option.  Desalination projects do occur in other countries, but the energy cost and cost of recovery are still very high.


Colorado Supreme Court Justice Hobbs has written a series of Colorado Water Law updates, published in the University of Denver Water Law Review. The first article was published in Volume 1, Issue 1, in 1997. To provide our readers with the most up-to-date water law information, the editors have periodically updated works previously published in the Water Law Review. The following is an update to Colorado Water Law: An Historical Overview, Appendix – Colorado Water Law: A Synopsis of Statutes and Case Law.


Fort Morgan Reservoir and Irrigation Co. v. Groundwater Appropriators of the South Platte River Basin, Inc.

“At the point at which a water rights case ceases to be a dispute handled informally by a water referee, and becomes litigation involving pre-trial discovery, sworn live testimony, and expert witnesses, it rests within the sound discretion of the trial court to determine whether, at the trial’s conclusion, there is a prevailing party entitled to costs. Since there is no statute or rule prohibiting the award of costs, and the unique nature of water right proceedings does not preclude the applicability of Rule 54(d), the award of costs necessarily rests in the sound discretion of the water court.” Fort Morgan Reservoir and Irrigation Co. v. Groundwater Appropriators of the South Platte River Basin, Inc., 85 P.3d 536, 541 (Colo. 2004).

United States of America v. Colorado State Engineer.

“The McCarran Amendment does not assert or imply that a state court would have jurisdiction to review the decision making process of federal entities, such as Interior or the Park Service, for compliance with federal law.

Indeed, such a conclusion would run contrary to the Administrative Procedure Act, the federal statute which establishes the practices and procedures followed by administrative agencies in rulemaking and adjudication. The language and legislative history of the APA’s judicial review provisions make clear that Congress intended to hold federal administrative agencies answerable for their conduct only in federal courts. 5 U.S.C. §§ 702, 706 (2004). Section 706 provides that a reviewing court shall ‘compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.’ 5 U.S.C. § 706(1). Section 702 defines the scope of that review: ‘A person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute’ is entitled to judicial review and may bring suit against the agency. 5 U.S.C. § 702. However, the suit must be brought ‘in a court of the United States.’ Id. Thus, the waiver of sovereign immunity is expressly limited to federal court. The APA’s legislative history underscores this intent, explicitly stating that the United States will remain immune from suit in state courts.

Click here for a PDF of the entire article: 10 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 391, 2006-2007.


View the first article by Justice Hobbs here: 1 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 1, 1997-1998.

View the first update to Colorado Water Law:  2 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 223, 1998-1999.

View the second update to Colorado Water Law: 4 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 111, 2000-2001.

View the third update to Colorado Water Law: 6 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 116 2002-2003.

View the fourth update to Colorado Water Law: 8 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 213, 2004-2005.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Hobbs has written a series of Colorado Water Law updates, published in the University of Denver Water Law Review. The first article was published in Volume 1, Issue 1, in 1997. To provide our readers with the most up-to-date water law information, the editors have periodically updated works previously published in the Water Law Review. The following is an update to Colorado Water Law: An Historical Overview, Appendix – Colorado Water Law: A Synopsis of Statutes and Case Law and was published in the Water Law Review, Volume 6 in 2001. 


Simpson v. Bijou Irrigation Co.

“As a result of the [1969] Act’s stated policy of conjunctive use, wells were required to be integrated into the priority system, although unadjudicated wells in existence prior to 1969 were allowed to continue. The Act nevertheless encouraged the adjudication of existing wells by allowing well owners who filed an application by July 1, 1971, to receive a water decree with a priority dating back to their original appropriation date. The 1969 Act also introduced the concept of augmentation plans into the water law adjudication and administration scheme. Augmentation plans were the primary means provided by the Act for integrating groundwater into the state priority system…. ”  Simpson v. Bijou Irrigation Co., 69 P.3d 50, 60 (Colo. 2003) (citations and footnotes omitted).

“In response to the large number of augmentation plan applications which had been filed, in 1974 the General Assembly vested the State Engineer with the authority to grant temporary approval of augmentation plans. Significantly, however, a precondition to even temporary approval by the State Engineer was that the water user had an augmentation plan application pending in water court.

Click here for a PDF of the entire article: 8 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 213, 2004-2005.


View the first article by Justice Hobbs here: 1 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 1, 1997-1998.

View the first update to Colorado Water Law:  2 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 223, 1998-1999.

View the second update to Colorado Water Law: 4 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 111, 2000-2001.

View the third update to Colorado Water Law: 6 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 116 2002-2003.

Almost three quarters of the surface of the earth is covered by water, and 96 percent of that water is found in oceans.  Fresh water is becoming ever more important as a finite resource.  While some look to the oceans as a solution to the limited fresh water supply, oceans hold saline water, something that is neither good for human consumption nor agricultural use. Desalination, a process that turns saline water into fresh water, may be the solution to the problem.

Until recently, desalination was only widely used in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia.  There are currently desalination plants in many countries, including the United States and Australia, with China about to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world leader, by capacity, of desalinated water.  Soon, the United States will also have more desalination plants, including a plant outside San Diego, California, known as the Carlsbad Desalination Project.  It is a state supported project, with the California Pollution Control Financing Authority currently selling tax-exempt bonds to finance the construction of the plant.  The plant in expected to be operational by 2016 and will have the capacity to create over sixty-thousand acre-feet  of fresh water per year, making it the largest capacity plant in the western hemisphere.

In addition to potential human consumption and agricultural use, desalinized water is also used for other projects such as mining.  The biggest challenge for many mining projects in arid regions is finding water.  For example, there are plans to pump desalinized water to the Mantoverde copper mine in Chile, where the water will be used to separate the copper from the ore. While more desalination projects could benefit industries such as mining and oil and gas production, the process has been criticized by many.

 Desalination Condemned

Although many governments and organizations are choosing desalination as a solution to their fresh water woes, there are just as many critics of the process.  Critics, including the non-profit organization, Food & Water Watch, claim that desalination is the most expensive type of water management, and that the expenses will be passed along to consumers, leading to corporate abuse of a social and basic life-sustaining need.  The Food & Water Watch also claims that desalination methods have a negative environmental history and the extreme environmental costs far outweigh the benefit of providing fresh water.  Costs include the massive amount of energy, often provided by fossil fuels, required to run such a plant.  There are concerns that desalination will become popular in places without strong environmental laws, and others are worried that the desalination plants extensive duct systems harm marine life through intake pipes and toxins.

One of the largest environmental impacts of the desalination process is the brine.  Desalination removes salt and minerals from the water, and creates hyper-saline brine that must be disposed.  Often, the brine is sent back into the oceans, but as brine is denser than most ocean water, it sinks and settles on the ocean floor, affecting marine ecosystems, and ocean life.  In states like California, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits are issued through the Water Boards to regulate brine releases from desalination facilities, and the permits have conditions protecting aquatic life.  Those permits do not directly address the elevated salinity in the oceans, how brine discharges are actually controlled, or the method of intake from the ocean.  However, the permits do address marine life.  It is important to note that other processes like wastewater treatment and recycling also create brine that is similarly discharged.

Hope for a Desalination Future

Some desalination plants are not as environmentally destructive as critics claim.  For example, a California Federal Court of Appeals held that the Carlsbad Desalination Plant would not violate environmental laws.  In the case, an environmental organization, the Surfrider Foundation (“Surfrider”), claimed the desalination project would violate California’s clean water laws.  Surfrider originally petitioned the California State Water Resources Control Board to review the NPDES permits given to the desalination project claiming that wetland restoration was the only substantive measure put in place, through the permits, to reduce the intake of and affects on marine life.  Surfrider focused on Cal. Wat. Code § 13142.5(b) that requires new or expanding coastal plants or industrial facilities using seawater to “minimize the intake and mortality of all forms of marine life.”  Surfrider then took its claim to the San Diego County Superior Court.  The court held, and the Appellate Court agreed, that Surfrider did not have factual support for their claim.  The actual approved minimization plan uses wetland restoration, along with site, design, technology and mitigation measures to reduce intake and mortality of marine life.

With desalination gaining popularity, more companies have entered the market, and research on the processes is quickly growing.  With more efforts focused on the technology, and a larger and more competitive market, the process if becoming more efficient and more affordable.  The developer of the Carlsbad Project claims the more expensive water will only translate into an additional $5 to $7 in residential users’ monthly water bills.  Some desalination plants are also switching to cleaner forms of energy, and as the costs of solar cells continues to decrease more plants will begin to use cleaner energy.  Although the brine and water intake may have future environmental repercussions, with the larger market and better research, the process could soon become more environmentally friendly.  Also with a larger market, more governments will take notice and regulate desalination procedures; many states and counties are already developing laws regulating desalination.


Billions of people do not have guaranteed daily access to potable water.  Currently, an estimated one billion people are gaining access to potable water through desalination.  Alternatives to desalination like conservation and wastewater recycling are likely not enough to provide potable water for such large numbers.

More municipalities, regions, and countries have many reasons for opening desalination facilities, including: creating a long-term solution to water shortages; creating a drought-proof resource; maintaining the local economy; and sustaining the quality of life.  These are the reasons are why many governments are prioritizing clean water for millions of the citizens over potential harm to marine life and the environment.

Regardless of the environmental costs, desalination will continue to increase in use.  Even if the continued research and use show that the brine is extremely harmful to the environment, it is unlikely that some countries, such as China, would stop using their desalination facilities.


Colorado Supreme Court Justice Hobbs has written a series of Colorado Water Law updates, published in the University of Denver Water Law Review. The first article was published in Volume 1, Issue 1, in 1997. To provide our readers with the most up-to-date water law information, the editors have periodically updated works previously published in the Water Law Review. The following is an update to Colorado Water Law: An Historical Overview, Appendix – Colorado Water Law: A Synopsis of Statutes and Case Law and was published in the Water Law Review, Volume 6 in 2001. 

Park County Water Pres. Coalition v. Columbine Assoc.

“Subject-matter jurisdiction concerns ‘the court’s authority to deal with the class of cases in which it renders judgment.’. . . [W]e have held that subject-matter jurisdiction vests in the water court upon the timely filing of the application and publication of the resume notice.” Park County Water Pres. Coalition v. Columbine Assoc., 993 P.2d 483, 488 (Colo. 2002) (citations omitted).

“The reasonableness of the notice is determined by applying an inquiry standard-whether the notice is sufficient to reveal to potential parties the nature of the claim being made, so that such parties can determine whether to conduct further inquiry into the full extent of those claims so a determination can be made whether to participate in the proceedings.” Id. at 489-90 (citation omitted).

“‘Consequently, alleged deficiencies invalidate the resume only if the resume taken as a whole is insufficient to inform or put the reader on inquiry of the nature, scope, and impact of the proposed diversion.”‘ Id. at 490 (citation omitted).


Click here for a PDF of the entire article: 6 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 116 2002-2003.


View the first article by Justice Hobbs here: 1 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 1 1997-1998.

View the first update to Colorado Water Law:  2 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 223, 1998-1999.

View the second update to Colorado Water Law: 4 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 111 2000-2001.

Las Vegas is deceptive, when one visits the area water is visible everywhere—in fountains, swimming pools, and on golf courses.  Las Vegas literally means “the meadows” in Spanish, and was named for the artesian springs that created an oasis in the middle of the desert.  Now, however, due to the over-consumption of the artesian springs, Las Vegas is an artificial oasis created by technology and engineers for tourists.  These technologies bring water to a place where no water exists.  Since Las Vegas only receives about four inches of rain a year, the city obtains most of its water from the Colorado River; yet that water is rapidly dwindling and some predict by the year 2060, the river will be short by 3.2 million acre-feet a year.  The water has fallen so much in Lake Mead that the Southern Nevada Water Authority (“SNWA”) is currently inserting another pipe into Lake Mead due to its falling water levels.  The reality of the Colorado River being overdrawn has forced SNWA to begin to look elsewhere for its water.

The SNWA has attempted to come up with alternative solutions for Las Vegas and the surrounding areas to conserve water and become sustainable.  These solutions include the groundwater project (which involves taking water from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada’s White Pine and Lincoln counties), turf removal plans, and recycling water.

Groundwater Project

Currently, Las Vegas obtains about 10 percent of its water supply from groundwater, and the rest comes from the Colorado River.  In order to obtain the groundwater from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada, in 1989, the Las Vegas Water District first submitted the groundwater plan to the State Engineer.  The SNWA was formed in 1991 and it continued to pursue groundwater in eastern Nevada.  In 2012, the State Engineer granted SNWA the water rights in Spring, Cave, Delamar, and Dry Lake valleys.  SNWA submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) in order to build a pipeline to transport the water to Las Vegas and the surrounding areas.  The BLM has given the SNWA permission to build 263 miles of pipeline to divert the water from the valleys to Southern Nevada, and in May 2013, BLM granted rights-of-way across federal land for the Groundwater Development Project.  The SNWA hopes that this project will reduce Nevada’s reliance on the Colorado River.

Although the groundwater project could help the Las Vegas area with their water troubles in the future, there is much opposition to it.  First, many in agriculture do not want to sacrifice their water and land for Las Vegas’ groundwater project.  The SNWA would be pumping the water out of rural Nevada and diverting the water from farms to the city.  While the SNWA has already bought much of the agricultural land that would be affected by the project for inflated prices, many farmers refuse to sell their land.  As the farmers sell their land and move out of the eastern counties, many small businesses who rely on their patronage will also go out of business and be forced to move.

Opposition also comes from environmentalists who are worried that if the SNWA begins to withdraw water, there will be less water for native desert plants.  According to environmentalists, if the water table is drawn down too far, the plants will begin to die, which could result in a dust bowl.  Finally, many species of wildlife will also be adversely affected if the water is diverted from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas because their habitats will be permanently altered due to lowering water levels.

Turf Removal and Water Recycling

Contrary to what many people believe, it is the residents of Las Vegas who waste the most water and not the resorts.  The resorts use only about three percent of diverted water from the Colorado River.  The remainder of the water is used by residents to water their lawns.  In order to combat and lessen the outdoor use of water, Las Vegas and surrounding areas have used “cash for turf removal” as a way to conserve water in Nevada.  The turf-removal program is very important because the water can evaporate easily in the hot desert and it cannot be collected and recycled for later use.  The turf-removal program encourages residents of Las Vegas to remove their lawns and replace them with plants that are native to the desert, which require less water than the grass that is normally planted outside of homes.  The replacement of lawn for native desert plants is called xeriscaping.  Las Vegas has also been trying to conserve water by capturing water that has been used by residences and resorts and recycling it. This water can be used to irrigate golf courses or it could be treated and sent back into the Colorado River.


Las Vegas has a major influence on the way that Nevada treats its water.  The culture of over-consumption provides most of the economic support for Nevada and Las Vegas provides most of the jobs for Nevada.  Although Las Vegas is trying to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River, it is doing it at a cost to rural areas and farmers and ranchers.  However, taking water from other areas of the United States is not enough to make Las Vegas a sustainable city and the SNWA must find other solutions in order to fulfill the city’s need for water.