Among the many nicknames Coloradans have for their state, “the mother of rivers” is particularly apt. Roughly 8,000 miles of streams and rivers flow through a state dotted by 2,000 or so lakes and reservoirs. Much of that water flows into 17 other states and Mexico, slaking the thirst of millions.

Despite its role as one of the nation’s primary taps, Colorado only recently adopted a comprehensive plan for managing this essential resource. Ahead of that historic moment, the Colorado Water Conservation Board asked Matt Nager to document how people throughout the state use something there simply isn’t enough of. His series Colorado Water is a breathtaking look at all the ways water shapes life in Colorado and the west. “It all revolves around water,” Nager says.

Grand Valley Diversion DamA rainbow appears during a storm in Delta, Colorado. Matt Nager

Colorado’s water—which begins as rain or snow—generates an average of 95 million acre feet annually. Of that, about 16 million acre feet flow through the state’s streams, creeks, and rivers and about 10.5 million acre feet continue on to 17 other states and Mexico. Three major river systems—the Arkansas, Rio Grande, and Colorado—have their headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado River system alone provides water to one in 10 Americans. “Water [in Colorado] is not simply some far away issue,” Nager says. “The decisions of one region directly impacts those in another.”

Those decisions have, at times, been haphazardly made, leading to recurring fights among competing interests over who gets what, when, and where. Eleven interstate compacts govern the distribution of water to other states. The $20 billion plan approved last fall focuses on water use within Colorado and aims to save 130 billion gallons annually through conservation, reuse, and smarter development. “[It] is remarkable in many respects,” says Larry MacDonnell, an expert in water law at the University of Colorado. “It is a reflection of the times, the increasing sense of uncertainty about our water future, [and] the awareness that historic practices are no longer sufficient at this time.”

Nager, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and lives in Denver, pounced at the chance to travel the state exploring a topic that’s long fascinated him. “It’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind,” he says.

Nager started his road trip in June and spent two months exploring the state with his Nikon D800 (for portraits) and Mamiya RZ67 (for landscapes). His photos reveal the beauty of the state, and all the ways people rely upon its water. Farmers tap canals to irrigate their acres of farmland. Anglers fish in the state’s many man-made reservoirs. The state’s natural bodies of water attract vacationers and locals to relax in the state’s abundant outdoor beauty.

Nothing about the scenes in Nager’s gorgeous photos suggests Colorado, like many states, faces a critical shortage of water. The mother of rivers will always be bountiful, but only if carefully managed.


They Don’t Call Colorado the Mother of Rivers for Nothin’, Folks