CU Athletics wants water back in the Colorado

Water for the West has restored 11 million gallons and counting to the Colorado River

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, seen here in 2008, is a focus of restoration efforts.

Every year the University of Colorado Boulder athletic department, CU Athletics, uses 12 million gallons of water in the locker rooms, keeping the fields green and at sporting events. This year they decided to do something about it.

CU Athletics and The CU Environmental Center teamed up to save 11 million gallons of water, restoring it to the dwindling Colorado River.

CU Boulder’s campaign, Water for the West, is part of a bigger initiative called Change the Course that’s already restored almost 5 billion gallons to depleted rivers around the nation.

Change the Course began in 2011 when a freshwater fellow at National Geographic, Sandra Postel, began brainstorming with then vice president of Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s (BEF) water stewardship program, Todd Reeve, to facilitate hands-on water conservation. They started by getting the public involved in conserving the Colorado River, which starts in the Rocky Mountains at La Poudre Pass and ends in the Gulf of California between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico.

The Colorado supplies drinking water, food, energy, recreation and work for 30 million Americans, according to Change the Course, but it’s so depleted that many years it no longer reaches the sea.

Change the Course asked people to pledge to eat less meat, buy less stuff, recycle more and generally use less water. For every pledge, they promised to restore 1,000 gallons to the Colorado River basin.

Then Change the Course got corporate sponsors on board like White Wave, parent company of brands such as Silk and Horizon Organic. And the initiative’s first action, led by White Wave, took place in far away Chicago.

“The Colorado basin isn’t only important to those companies and people living in the basin, it’s actually important to the entire country and internationally frankly,” says Val Fishman, chief development officer for BEF who assists CU’s campaign.

White Wave created a 3-D chalk image of the Colorado River at Chicago’s Union Station so people could stand inside the drawing Mary Poppins-style and feel as if they were standing in the last water-filled bend of the river before it dries up.

They used the event to educate people about the depleted river, which is responsible for food all across the country. Through the pledge people could help restore the Colorado even from the streets of Chicago.

So how does it work? The answer is twofold — conservation and finagling our obstinate Western water laws.

People first established water rights in the West by taking water out of rivers and putting it to “beneficial use” like mining and irrigation. Rights were first come first serve and lasted indefinitely so long as the water was put to use.

To this day people are afraid to give up any water at risk of losing their rights. But in 2003 the Colorado Legislature passed a law allowing rights holders to lease water back into streams for environmental purposes three out of 10 years without forsaking their claim.

In 2012 Change the Course launched the first project to take advantage of that new law.

“The Yampa River up near Steamboat, runs through Steamboat Springs, was about to crash ecologically,” Postel says. “It was flowing at 5 percent of normal during that late June period in summer.”

BEF partnered with Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to lease water from the Stagecoach Reservoir upstream. The project restored 465 million gallons of water a year to the Yampa, reopening fisheries as well as tubing and fly-fishing activities.

“A lot of our projects have to do with farms and ranches, irrigators because those are the biggest users of water in the West,” Postel says. “So we’re always looking for projects that basically improve the health of the river, but also are beneficial to the community.”

Four years after the initial Change the Course action in Chicago, CU is joining the fight to refill the Colorado. The athletic center purchased Water Restoration Certificates from BEF to restore 10 million gallons. Water Restoration Certificates act like carbon credits and companies can pay BEF to restore the water while getting the credit for it.

In addition, CU saved one million gallons of water this year by soliciting conservation pledges at basketball games. With a goal of 1,000 text pledges, 1,003 texts came in.

“It was really about educating our fans and trying to affect change of our fan’s behaviors,” says Brandon Leimbach, senior manager at Learfield, CU’s sports marketing company. “That’s the neat thing about programs like Water for the West, we’re not just selling a brand, we’re trying to change our fans behaviors to get them more environmentally focused.”

But Dave Newport, director of the Environmental Center, knew they could do more. The environmental center added to the initiative by sending students out to serve the community, installing low flow water equipment to underserved areas in Boulder County. Kohler, manufacturer of showers, sinks and toilets, liked what they were doing and donated low flow toilets.

“That was one of the big pieces of this project was not only affecting behaviors of individuals like you and me,” Leimbach says. “But actually going into communities and really making a difference.”

CU Boulder installed 35 toilets in affordable housing communities. Next school year they’re aiming for 100. The athletic center is also planning to extend the messaging into football as well as get other PAC 12 schools on board.

Stanford University, University of Utah, Arizona State University and University of Arizona have already shown interest, Fishman says. The University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California held a pledge contest between the Bruins and the Trojans two years in a row to see who could restore more water.

Change the Course projects have been so successful that they’ve been able to move beyond the Colorado River basin. Through BEF, Change the Course has completed more than 25 restoration projects throughout the West and into Mexico. Conservation efforts fall under five categories: Permanent transfers, where water rights are signed over to benefit rivers; Water leasing, where rights holder designate some of their water to environmental benefits temporarily; Water conservation, such as funding agricultural equipment that uses water more efficiently; Water management can modernize outdated irrigation technology that leaks 80 percent of water intended for crops; and acquiring wetland rights to improve groundwater tables and support local ecology.

The projects range in savings from as small as 5,000 gallons to over a billion gallons and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation verifies the savings from each project.

In less than a year CU Boulder managed to offset most of their water usage from one of the biggest users on campus. In an area of the country where water is one of the most precious resources, saving it is crucial and Change the Course can help.

Correction: The original text stated that UCLA and UC Berkeley engaged in a pledge contest. It was actually UCLA and USC. And the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation verifies savings from each project not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Our apologies for any inconvenience. 


  1. Why does Colorado or rather the Front Range take water from the severely parched west when the Mississippi river basin has so much water. It seems that the problem really needs to be addressed by states like Kansas, Arkansas, and Nebraska, to use more water from the Mississippi, and less water from the Arkansas and Platte. Maybe a federal solution is necessary.


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