If you drive up Flagstaff Mountain and look across the sea of homes on the eastern Colorado plains, the striking view will compel you to ask, “where is the water supply coming from for all those houses?” In Boulder, we are dependent on the Rocky Mountain winter and summer rains after the snow melts. Located at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder looks to three major sources of water. First is Barker Reservoir, just east of Nederland on Middle Boulder Creek. Second is the Silver Lake/Lakewood Watershed on North Boulder Creek. Third is Boulder Reservoir, which is fed by the Colorado-Big Thompson system.
The water from these sources flow into City of Boulder’s two water treatment plants via a complex series of creeks, ditches, and pipes. The plants prep water for human consumption, domestic irrigation, firefighting, and other uses. The two plants are the Betasso location off Boulder Canyon and the southeast corner of Boulder Reservoir.
The year was 1909 and construction of the dam on Middle Boulder Creek began on a ranch site that was owned previously by Hannah Barker. Originally built by the Central Colorado Power Company, the water behind the dam was to be used as a source of hydroelectric power and water supply. Since 1954, Barker Reservoir has been a major component of the City of Boulder’s water system.
Water from Barker Reservoir and Middle Boulder Creek is then fed into the Betasso Water Treatment plant. Then the water is directed into the city water system and conveniently ends up flowing to your faucet.
Silver Lake/Lakewood Watershed
This watershed was the original source of water for the City of Boulder. The land containing the Silver Lake Watershed was deeded to the city of Boulder by the U.S. Congress in 1929, specifically to supply water. Boulder was blessed with a high-quality water supply, delivered by gravity from high to low altitude, to the city. In fact, it met all the city’s water needs until the 1950s. Today, the watershed still supplies about 40% of the city’s water needs. Many refer to the watershed today as the “forbidden zone” as the area is closed to the public to protect water quality and preserve a very fragile alpine environment.
Recently, two members of the Boulder Property Network at RE/MAX of Boulder, Timmy Duggan and Scott Ptach, were fortunate enough to be invited to enter the watershed to participate in a snow depth survey. Taking these measurements require a high level of fitness to meet the demands of the hiking/skiing to reach the measurement location. Because it was a heavy snow year, the survey required a great deal of digging to measure how deep the snow is. The data points collected from this survey are critical to analyzing how much water the City of Boulder will have in the upcoming hot summer months.
Water from this watershed is also directed to the Betasso Water Treatment plant in Boulder Canyon off Sugarloaf Road.
Boulder Reservoir currently supplies about 20% of Boulder’s drinking water. Most of the water filling the reservoir passes through the Boulder Feeder Canal from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The Reservoir was completed in 1955. The initial purpose of the lake was to store drinking water and irrigation water. However, shortly after being filled, sand was delivered to the south side, creating a recreational beach. Boulder area residents enjoyed the first event at the reservoir on July 4, 1955 with picnicking, swimming, and festivities. Boulder Reservoir, more commonly known as “The Rez,” is still is home to a variety of events, while serving as a key part of our city’s water supply system. Conditions change every year, but generally, water levels at The Rez is very high in June and pretty low by September.
The story of how water gets into The Rez is quite amazing. It’s made possible by a huge engineering feat of the 1950s: the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Your glass of water from the Boulder Reservoir starts as snow melt on the other side of the Continental Divide, flowing into the lakes of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The water is then pumped into the Alva B. Adams Tunnel which passes under the Continental Divide over to Lake Estes in Estes Park. The water works its way down the mountain and eventually into Carter Lake west of Loveland. From Carter Lake, the water feeds into the Boulder Feeder Canal, which empties into the north side of the Boulder Reservoir. The water is treated at the treatment plant located on the south east side of the Boulder Reservoir and is then fed into the city’s water supply. The next time you take a sip of water, raise a glass and toast the engineers that made it possible for you to have that water delivered to your tap!
For more information on the City of Boulder’s water supply, see the City’s website: https://bouldercolorado.gov/water/water-supply-and-planning
In addition, you can find an interesting interactive map of where our water comes from at: https://tinyurl.com/y3honhto