Water & Energy

The relationship between water and energy is complex. Learn from CU-Boulder scientists about the key role water plays in most forms of energy production and how a warming planet impacts our water resources. Watch the Emmy-nominated video "Water: A Zero Sum Game" and explore other resources to learn about water and its connections with climate, energy, and more.

Water in the Intermountain West

What does the West’s water supply look like today? Use these graphs to investigate current data on precipitation, snowpack, drought intensity, and reservoir storage. These graphs are taken from the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard by the Western Water Assessment and are updated daily for decision making support for water managers and users. Find ideas for using these graphs in the classroom and tips for water conservation in your school.

  • 30-day Precipitation as a % of Average
    High Plains Regional Climate Center
    30-day Precipitation Anomaly (Updated daily)
  • Water Year (2014) Precipitation as a % of Average
    High Plains Regional Climate Center
    Water Year Precipitation Anomaly (Updated daily)
  • Current Snowpack as a % of Median
    National Resource Conservation Service
    Western US Snowpack Anomaly (Updated daily)
  • Upper Colorado Reservoir Storage
    Bureau of Reclamation
    Reservoir Storage: Upper Colorado River Basin (Updated daily)
  • US Drought Monitor
    National Drought Mitigation Center
    US Drought Monitor (Updated weekly)
  • Current Streamflow - Colorado US Geological Survey Colorado Current Streamflow (Updated daily) Key to Percentile Classes
WWA Logo

Find more graphs and review the Western Water Assessment’s monthly summaries at the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard.

CU-Boulder's Western Water Assessment uses research to address societal vulnerabilities related to climate, particularly in the area of water resources for the Intermountain West.


Ideas for the Classroom

Climate or Weather: What's the Difference?

Ask students to explain which graphs represent weather, which graphs represent climate, or if some graphs represent both weather and climate.

You Make the Call: Decision Making
Use the following scenarios for a role-playing exercise with student:
You are the water manager for a suburb of Denver that draws from streams and reservoirs in both the South Platte and Colorado River watersheds (map of the Denver Water collection system). Nearly all of your annual water supply comes from snowmelt in the spring. If you expect a below-normal water supply (less than 80% of normal) this year, you will need to arrange ahead of time to buy water from local farmers to supplement your supply. This is very expensive, but if you don't do it, your city might run out of water. Which information on the mini-dashboard would you look at to decide whether to buy water this spring? Given that information, would you buy water? Why or why not? What additional information would you want before you make a decision?  Are there other choices beyond purchasing water that could make up the water shortfall for your city?

Now you are the water manager for Durango in southwestern Colorado, and your water comes from the Animas River that flows through Durango (part of the Dolores watershed). You have the same situation as the manager above. Would you buy water this spring? Why or why not?

How Does Your Water Footprint Measure Up?
Have students calculate their household water usage using Graces Water Footprint Calculator (gallons/day), then convert to gallons/year, and then convert to acre-feet/year(1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons). Next, have them find how many acre-feet of water are stored in the closest reservoir in the Upper Colorado Reservoir Storage graph (current acre-feet stored is the first number in the line beneath the reservoir name). How many years would the reservoir last if just the student's household were using it? If the whole city had the same water usage as the student? The whole state? Compare results among students.

Water Now and Water Then
Ask students to find historic precipitation averages in their hometown for the current climate period (1981-2010) and a past climate period (30 year period). Find historic annual precipitation records through the United States Historical Climatology Network. Select your hometown (or the closest town to it), "Get Monthly Data," and select "Annual Precipitation (PRECIP)" under #4. Have students compare the climate periods and discuss changes in precipitation, and hypothesize causes and implications of changes (if there are any).

In Your School

From daily habits to a water audit, here are some toolkits to help you conserve water in your school:

Colorado Water Wise Water Conservation Assessment Toolkit
The Green Schools Alliance SMART Schools Water Conservation Toolkit



Average: In the figures above, "average" describes the statistical mean of data from years 1981-2010.

Drought: The US Drought Monitor map uses drought indicators including (but not limited to) the Palmer Drought Severity Index, soil moisture, streamflow, precipitation, measures of vegetation stress, and reports of drought impacts.

Intermountain West: The geographic and geological region located between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada on the west in known as the Intermountain West

Percentile (as used in the USGS Streamflow Map): A value on a scale of one hundred that indicates the percent of a distribution that is equal to or below it. For example, on the map of daily streamflow conditions, a river discharge at the 90th percentile is equal to or greater than 90 percent of the discharge values recorded on this day of the year during all years that measurements have been made. [from USGS]

Water Year: From October 1 of the preceding year to September 31 of the following year. Hydrologists use this time period to capture the snowpack and snowmelt of one year, beginning with snowpack accumulation in the preceding October. For example, water year 2014 begins October 1, 2013 and ends September 31, 2014.

Learn more about the graphs above on the Western Water Assessment's "About the Dashboard Graphics" page.

University of Colorado Boulder Institutes and Programs


Western Water Assessment identifies regional vulnerability to climate change, and develops information, products and processes to assist water-resource decision makers throughout the intermountain west.


The Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment is dedicated to informing and influencing natural resources law and policy. The Center fosters practical and effective solutions to resource problems through its extensive research program, outreach activities, and educational programs for law students and the general public.

 cawThe Center of the American West takes as its mission the creation of forums for the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of solutions to the region's difficulties. Projects address such critical issues as energy, the interior, mining, water, land use and more.

The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) develops scientific knowledge of physical and biochemical environmental processes at local, regional and global scales. It applies this knowledge to improve society's awareness and understanding of natural and anthropogenic (human caused) environmental change, focusing on the world's high-altitude and high-latitude regions.


The Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC) is an interdisciplinary program that provides an educational and research environment to examine the dynamical, physical, and chemical processes that occur in the atmosphere and the ocean.

Science Discovery - CU Boulder

Science Discovery is an experience-based, educational outreach program that stimulates scientific interest, understanding, and literacy among Colorado's youth, teachers, and families.


The Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2) is a cooperative research and educational center devoted to the conversion of biomass fuels and other products.


The Renewable and Sustainable Energy Initiative at CU-Boulder is a joint institute with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) designed to become an international force in solving the energy challenge through research, education, and technology commercialization.


The Center for Energy and Environmental Security (CEES) works to develop practical strategies and solutions for moving international society toward a global sustainable energy future. CEES addresses issues of energy security and climate change.


Cool Tools

My Water Comes from the Rocky Mountains & My Water Comes from the San Juan Mountains

These books are written for children ages 8-11 that takes them on an illustrative journey from the snow high in the mountains to water in their faucet tap, introducing them to the distinctive wildlife, ecosystems, and diverse uses of water along the way. My Water Comes from the San Juan Mountains is also available in Spanish. Learn More

Niwot Ridge Live TundraCam

Visit the filming location of "Water: A Zero Sum Game" without leaving your classroom.  Take control of the Niwot Ridge LTER Program HD TundraCam for a real-time, panoramic view of the Front Range from 11,600 feet.  Students can use the camera as part of a virtual field trip to the Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Research site.

Mountain Snowpack Data Analysis

In Colorado, the majority of the water supply comes from snowmelt. Researchers at the Niowt Ridge LTER site monitor snowpack properties using snow depth sensors. In this activity, educators and students use real data to play the role of water managers. What is the snow water equivalence, or the amount of water contained in the snow in the Green Lakes Valley Basin? What does that mean for the basin's water storage? Given that the average person uses 82 gallons of water per day, calculate the number of people that the basin could supply?
Download the Mountain Snowpack Water Data Analysis Worksheet


In Time Of Drought

Alfalfa grown with Colorado River water is a case study of how and why water gets used as it does.

Why Farmers Care About Snowpack

Like much of the far West, northern Nevada is in the grips of a historic drought. The federal government has declared much of the region a disaster area. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is at historically low levels. That means feed will be in short supply, which is a big deal, because the alfalfa that's grown here doesn't just stay local. NPR talked with Pete Olsen about drought on his fifth-generation dairy farm in Fallon, Nevada.

Listen to the podcast.

Oil & Gas Water Quality Interactive Maps

The Intermountain Oil & Gas Best Practices Program provides a platform for the systematic collection, measurement and display of state-level laws. It is a resource for researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and the public. Use the Interactive Law Maps pages below to generate maps and tables. Highlight selected features of the law as it exists today, or see how it has changed over time.

Permitting, Design, and Construction Map

Well Drilling Map

Well Completion Map

Production and Operation Map

Reclamation Map

These maps and tables are generated from policy surveillance datasets that are produced by Publish Health Law Research staff, grantees and outside sources. For more information about the methods of collecting this data, please visit the Law Atlas website.