Impact and Response: The Great Drought of 2000-2006 in Colorado


From 2000 to 2006, Colorado experienced one of the most severe and prolonged droughts in its recorded history. This period, known as “The Great Drought,” had far-reaching impacts on the state’s ecosystems, water resources, and communities.


  • The Great Drought lasted from 2000 to 2006 and was one of the most severe in Colorado's history.
  • It significantly impacted Colorado's ecosystems, reducing streamflows, reservoir levels, and soil moisture.
  • Communities and the government responded with water conservation measures, aid programs, and long-term adaptation strategies.

Historical Context of Droughts in Colorado

Colorado’s semi-arid climate makes it naturally prone to periodic droughts. Prior to The Great Drought, the state experienced significant dry spells in the 1930s, 1950s, and late 1970s. However, the early 21st century drought stood out for its severity and duration. Climate change is believed to have played a role in intensifying the drought conditions.

The Onset of The Great Drought

The Great Drought began in earnest in 2000, with below-average snowpack and precipitation levels. By 2002, it had become the driest year on record for many parts of Colorado. Reservoirs and rivers dropped to critically low levels, and many streams and wells went dry. State and local authorities began implementing water restrictions and drought response plans.

Environmental Impacts

The drought had severe consequences for Colorado’s natural environment:

  • Streamflows in many rivers dropped to 10-30% of average, with some reaching record lows
  • Reservoir storage plummeted, with levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling by over 50%
  • Soil moisture declined, stressing native vegetation and crops
  • Wildfires increased in frequency and intensity due to dry conditions
  • Fish and wildlife populations declined as habitats degraded

Socioeconomic Consequences

The drought also took a heavy toll on Colorado’s economy and communities:

  • Agricultural production fell sharply, with crop losses of 30-100% in some areas
  • Ranchers had to reduce livestock herds or purchase expensive feed
  • Outdoor recreation and tourism suffered as rivers and reservoirs dried up
  • Municipalities implemented strict water conservation measures, affecting landscaping, car washing, etc.
  • Some communities experienced water shortages and had to truck in supplies
  • The drought cost the state billions in agricultural and recreational losses

Community and Government Response

Coloradans took action to mitigate the drought’s impacts:

  • Residents and businesses cut water use through conservation and efficiency upgrades
  • Municipalities implemented tiered water rates, rebates for efficient appliances, and leak-detection programs
  • The state provided emergency aid to hard-hit farmers and ranchers
  • Federal agencies like the USDA and Bureau of Reclamation offered disaster assistance
  • Water providers developed drought response plans and invested in storage and distribution infrastructure
  • Researchers from the National Weather Service, the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, and the Colorado Geological Survey all studied the extreme drought to improve forecasting and risk assessment tools

Learning from The Great Drought

The Great Drought spurred changes in how Colorado manages its water:

  • The state updated its drought plan and now maintains a real-time drought monitoring portal
  • Many communities have diversified their water portfolios with conservation, reuse, and new supplies
  • Collaborative regional water planning efforts have expanded, with an emphasis on sustainability
  • Public education campaigns have raised awareness about water scarcity and efficiency
  • Farmers have adopted drought-tolerant crops and water-saving irrigation techniques

The Future of Water in Colorado

While The Great Drought ended in 2006, its legacy continues to shape Colorado’s approach to water stewardship. With climate change expected to make droughts more frequent and severe, ongoing efforts focus on:

  • Improving drought forecasting and risk management tools
  • Investing in water infrastructure modernization and resilience
  • Expanding water storage capacity while minimizing environmental impacts
  • Enhancing water conservation and reuse programs
  • Protecting and restoring critical watersheds and stream habitats
  • Collaborating across state lines on drought preparedness and response

By learning from The Great Drought, Colorado aims to build a more sustainable and resilient water future. As the state’s population continues to grow, balancing the needs of people, agriculture, recreation, and the environment will remain a critical challenge. Innovative solutions, cooperation, and responsible stewardship will all play a role in ensuring a secure water supply for generations to come.

FAQ Section

What were the primary causes of The Great Drought in Colorado?

The Great Drought was caused by a combination of below-average snowpack and precipitation, high temperatures, and evaporation rates, which led to lower flow in rivers in the Colorado River Basin, like the Colorado River and the Arkansas River. Climate change likely exacerbated these conditions.

How did The Great Drought affect Colorado’s agriculture sector?

The severe drought led to significant crop losses, reduced yields, and increased costs for irrigation and livestock feed. Many farmers and ranchers experienced financial hardship as a result.

What measures were taken to conserve water during The Great Drought?

During the Great Drought Colorado, Municipalities implemented watering restrictions, tiered pricing, rebates for efficient appliances, and leak detection programs. Residents and businesses also took voluntary conservation measures.

How has Colorado changed its water management policies post-drought?

Colorado has updated its drought plan, invested in water efficiency and reuse, expanded storage capacity, and promoted collaborative regional planning. The state also maintains a real-time drought monitoring portal.

What can individuals do to contribute to water conservation efforts?

Individuals can conserve water by fixing leaks, installing efficient appliances and fixtures, reducing outdoor watering, and being mindful of their usage habits. Supporting water-smart policies and participating in community planning efforts also helps.


About the author

Ransom Patterson

My expertise in Colorado life extends beyond just residing here; it’s also about living actively within the community. I spend my time cycling through Denver’s trails, experimenting with local cuisines, and immersing myself in the local music scene. These activities give me a unique perspective on the cultural and outdoor offerings of Colorado. This hands-on approach allows me to provide insider tips and personal recommendations that resonate with both locals and visitors alike.