EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The Eagle River basin is melting four to eight weeks earlier than normal this year because of below average snowfall, warm spring temperatures and wind, according to the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, presenting what could be the worst water supply year in Eagle County history.
This year's local water supply is shaping up to be worse - much worse - than 2002, the worst drought year Colorado had seen in about 250 years.
"2002 was the worst thing we had seen," said Water District General Manager Linn Brooks. "It was the worst drought Colorado had seen since like the 1750s, according to tree ring data, and this one is so much worse, or at least shaping up to be much worse."
While Front Range water supplies rely heavily on reservoirs that are currently full or near-full because of an above average snowpack in 2010-11, Eagle County relies on streamflows for its water supply, Brooks said.
"The Front Range is worried about next year, but that's not true for us - we're worried about this year," Brooks said.
The district is reminding local residents to "plan their landscaping efforts accordingly," meaning the drought conditions will likely continue and outdoor water restrictions are likely, although the district is not imposing any yet.
In 2002, the district restricted outdoor water use in August, but subsequent rainfall held the restrictions to just one week. This year, the snowpack's melt cycle began between March 4-8, about two months earlier than usual. The water supply is not only smaller, but it has to last a lot longer, Brooks said.
A lot of the outlook still depends on the weather, though. Water district spokeswoman Diane Johnson said the snowpack story is essentially over - we know what we've got in terms of the snowpack, and the answer is bad news.
Brooks said what's scary about this year is that early melt cycle that began in early March. Since snowpack melts and becomes runoff, the earlier that happens in a dry year like this one, the smaller the streamflows will become early on in the summer.
"We started from a less-high place and we've got a long ways to go," Brooks said. "It basically makes that summer period that we're at risk for low streamflows much longer."
Since the 2002 drought, the Water District has invested in significant improvements for drought management. The improvements have increased capacities for reservoirs, built new water storage tanks and better plans for optimizing stream flows, Brooks said.
"We've done all these things and that should reduce the likelihood of having to have outdoor water restrictions, but that being said, this drought is much worse than 2002," Brooks said. "I think it would be prudent for homeowners, landscaping companies, etc., to consider that there is a risk this year that outdoor watering restrictions will be put in place."
Because the fire danger is so high this year, water supplies for fire suppression are crucial, she said.
"If the streamflows drop so much that our physical supply is limited and we get to the point where we can't ensure the fire capacity of our system and provide water for outdoor irrigation, we would shut off outdoor irrigation in order to ensure we have water for fire suppression," Brooks said.
Because outdoor irrigation for landscaping is not a critical use, it would be one of the first things to be put under restriction, she said.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.