RED CLIFF - A cold winter with little snow has hit Red Cliff's water supply for the second time in as many years. This time, though, fewer people were affected for fewer days.
Last year, days stretched into weeks for town residents when a low snowpack led much of the town's water system to freeze up. This year, starting Jan. 18, a simple sensor froze to the town's water storage tank, resulting in a drop of pressure that kept water from flowing to the higher-elevation homes in town. Service was restored to those homes Jan. 20.
Mayor Scott Burgess said that with people running "bleeder" lines - running water at a trickle to keep lines clear - it became difficult to refill the town's storage tank.
The town of Minturn sent water tankers to help fill the tank, since it takes time to fill the tank when the creek that supplies the town is running at a trickle. In addition, town employees and town board members worked to re-start a heating system installed last year.
Eventually, water heated to 130 degrees was pumped into the town's water system, helping free up the lines.
Burgess said the heating system - essentially four large, tankless home water heaters - wasn't running for a couple of reasons.
First, the town needs permission from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to run the heaters as part of the town's municipal water system. That permission was quickly granted.
The second, and perhaps more important issue, is cost. The water heaters run on propane. Given that the price is nearly that of gasoline per gallon, running propane devices quickly gets expensive.
"Our wastewater system runs on propane, and we just paid $7,000 to run it last month," Burgess said.
To get the system running again took a lot of volunteer labor. Burgess said several town board members dedicated their weekend to the project. Burgess' wife was the incident commander, coordinating equipment and people.
"Board members and citizens learned a lot about running a water system," Burgess said.
Red Cliff resident Jim Lamont owns one of the homes that lost water last weekend. He knew what was coming, since he heard the tell-tale gurgle of his pipes.
Lamont said he'd noticed that the bleeder pipes attached to the town system hadn't been running in the days before his place lost service.
"The bleeders keep everything running," Lamont said.
When the gurgle started, Lamont dug snow out of his yard to put in the bathtub. From there, he heated the snow on the stovetop so he'd have water.
"That must have been the way it worked before Red Cliff had a water system," Lamont said. "But it's one thing if you know it's coming."
Keeping the town's water system running has been an education, Burgess said, and town officials are still looking for more cost-effective, and just plain old effective, ways to run it.
Old-timers used to know how the system worked, Lamont said, but those people have mostly moved on.
"They're still on a learning curve," Lamont said of the board. "Maybe next year when there's no snow and it gets cold, there'll be a checklist in the town hall."
But Burgess said he's proud of the way town officials responded to the latest water troubles.
"We're watching our system closely," Burgess said. "It's being monitored on a daily basis."