VAIL, Colorado - The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Vail Resorts have brought outside-the-box thinking to a new water agreement signed late last month.
In the agreement signed Aug. 23, the Water District can pump water out of the Eagle River, until Oct. 15, at Dowd Junction via Vail Mountain's snowmaking pipeline and then through the resort's on-mountain snowmaking system and into Mill Creek. In return, Vail Mountain will have access to as much as 100 acre-feet of water in Black Lakes, atop Vail Pass, for snowmaking through Dec. 31.
The Water District wants to pump the water through Vail Mountain's snowmaking system and into Mill Creek because it will help flows in Gore Creek, which is experiencing low streamflows that could negatively affect river health.
Rick Sackbauer, chairman of the Water District's board of directors, told the Vail Town Council Tuesday night the agreement is "historical."
What the Water District gets
He said the movement of the water - which makes a loop by going through Vail's snowmaking pipes from Dowd Junction to the Water District building in Lionshead, and then up through the resort's on-mountain snowmaking system before entering Mill Creek near Manor Vail and eventually Gore Creek and on to the Eagle River - helps Gore Creek's overall health.
A 2001 agreement between Vail and the Water District states that the Water District can use Vail's pipeline, which diverts water from the confluence of Gore Creek and the Eagle River at Dowd Junction, to transport Water District water rights during times the pipeline is not being used by Vail. Pumping the water as high upstream as Mill Creek via the on-mountain system, however, is what's new.
Water District spokeswoman Diane Johnson said the outlook for precipitation isn't great in the coming weeks, so this agreement will help lessen the impacts on Gore Creek.
Water rights attorney Glenn Porzak, who represents both Vail Resorts and the Water District, said it's the first time he knows of in which a water district is using an on-mountain snowmaking system to enhance water flows. While the current agreement is short-term, Porzak said the entities could decide to make similar agreements in the future if the current agreement works out.
Porzak said the current agreement is "kind of an extension of the cooperative arrangements that have existed in the past between Vail and the District."
Vail Associates (which is now Vail Resorts, although Vail Associates still owns the resort's water rights and still operates as an entity within Vail Resorts, Porzak said), provided the original water rights that served as the base water supply for the town of Vail. Vail Associates deeded those rights to the predecessor of the Water District, the Vail Water and Sanitation District, Porzak said, adding that there have been other water entities since leading up to the current Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Vail Associates also provided some of the original seed money to the Water District for the development of Black Lakes, and in return the Water District provides some of the snowmaking water supply for Vail Mountain, Porzak said.
What Vail Mountain gets
In a year of extreme and severe drought like the region has faced this year, the possibility of a water shortfall is a reality.
Porzak said when there aren't many people in town in November and early December - the time frame in which Vail typically makes the most snow - it means less treated water is coming back into Gore Creek at the effluent discharge site at the Water District building in Lionshead. November and early December is also a time when the Gore Creek is already hitting its lowest flow season - winter. If the creek's flow drops below 16 cubic feet per second between Oct. 1-31, or below 6 cubic feet per second between Nov. 1-April 30, the Water District limits snowmaking diversions to equal the amount of effluent being discharged.
The in-stream flow call is what happens when flows dip below those threshold numbers of 16 cubic feet per second in October and 6 cubic feet per second during November through April, which would then restrict water use for snowmaking to the amount of effluent being discharged.
Add in the fact that the snowmaking pipeline out of Dowd Junction can only carry about 3.5 cubic feet per second, if there's not enough effluent to supplement that (which there likely wouldn't be because discharges are low that time of year), then Vail Mountain could find itself without enough water to meet its snowmaking demands.
Johnson calls the agreement an insurance policy for Vail. She said the resort might not need any of the water out of Black Lakes, but the access is critical.
Vail Mountain's current water supply looks good, even without considering the access to Black Lakes, said spokeswoman Liz Biebl, adding that the mountain's snowmaking pond is full.
Black Lakes is also full, Sackbauer said.
"Historically, even in a low snow year, it normally does fill," he said.
Full means there's about 425 acre feet in Black Lakes. Porzak said one cubic foot per second equals about 450 gallons per minute, and one cubic foot per second running for 24 hours would equal 2 acre feet.
So, in the end, Vail Resorts has a backup plan for supplementing its snowmaking supply during its critical 50th anniversary season, and the Water District can add flow into Gore Creek in the name of stream health.
"Both sides get a real benefit out of it," Porzak said. "It was kind of a perfect thing - Vail lets the District use its upper system to get water all the way into Mill Creek so they then can put it into Gore Creek at the upper reaches of the town, then the return is that if we really need some more snow this season, (the Water District) will make some Black Lakes water available."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.