VAIL - Local water officials have an emergency plan in place for this summer and hope they don't have to use it.
The plan was hashed out Thursday during a joint meeting of the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority - responsible for supplying drinking water between Eagle-Vail and Cordillera - and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District - which handles wastewater throughout the upper valley, water for Vail, and operates the entire system. Members of both boards heard a presentation about the state of the upper valley's water supply and what might happen this year if supplies run low.
District General Manager Linn Brooks showed board members some sobering slides comparing snowpack and streamflows from this year so far to 2002, the last bad drought year in the valley.
On the good side of the ledger, soil moisture levels are better than they were a decade ago. So are the levels in Black Lakes and Eagle Park Reservoirs.
But that's offset by news about snowpack and streamflows. A decade ago, there was the equivalent of 12 inches of water at the Vail Mountain measurement site. This year's number is zero.
Streamflows are also sobering, both for overall levels and how early the runoff has begun.
Overall, though, Brooks said it's tough to tell whether this year or 2002 is worse.
What's constant, however, is the need for snow to feed local water supplies.
"Snowpack is our reservoir," Brooks told the group.
While there are reservoirs at the very top of the system, one - Homestake Reservoir - isn't available this year because of repairs to the dam this summer. Black Lakes and Eagle Park are used to replace the water the districts' customers use from Gore Creek and Eagle River.
That leaves what's actually flowing in Gore Creek and the Eagle River, in addition to a variety of wells. Over the last decade, district officials have spent millions on improving the system, from changing stream inlets to upgrading well output to building new water tanks.
At this point, Brooks said, the district could actually leave water in Gore Creek and supply Vail with water from the Avon treatment plant.
The point of all that work is to ensure the upper valley doesn't have what it calls a "water supply emergency." If that happens, the valley's water picture will change, and quickly.
At the moment, a residential account that uses more than 20,000 gallons per month pays a higher rate for that use. Starting in May, district officials will monitor use every week - new technology has cut meter-reading down to a two-person, 18-hour job. If a home uses more than 5,000 gallons in a week, that homeowner will get a call and some advice about using less water.
If an emergency is declared, virtually all residential outdoor watering will be prohibited and anyone using over 2,000 gallons per week will get a call and some advice.
Unlike 2002, the district won't warn residents about the new restrictions - people a decade ago did even more outdoor watering when they knew outdoor watering would be banned - and people won't receive warnings, just fines.
If an emergency is declared, it will last for at least two weeks, but that doesn't mean all outdoor watering will stop. Watering will still be allowed for "high economic value" purposes such as golf courses and public landscaping.
District spokeswoman Diane Johnson said there's already an agreement in place with the Vail Recreation District to prioritize water use on the Vail Golf Course.
Agreements are in place to do that watering as efficiently as possible.
"But it would be great to get through this summer without declaring an emergency," Brooks said. "It would show we've really done our job in preparing."