Drought response preparations becoming more ‘routine’ for Eagle River Basin
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. Learn more at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
Winter in the Eagle River Basin has gotten off to a slow start, leading water managers to keep a close eye on snowpack and spring streamflow predictions.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 17, the Upper Colorado River headwaters were at 84 percent of normal precipitation for this water year, which runs from October 2017 through September 2018. The current snow totals could have big implications for the region’s water provider, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District monitors three snow telemetry, or SNOTEL, snow-measurement sites: Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass. The Vail and Copper sites indicate what spring runoff might look like in Gore Creek and the town of Vail, according to district Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson.
The Fremont Pass site is near the headwaters of the Eagle River, which indicates what runoff might look like in Avon and Edwards. As of Tuesday, Jan. 16, the Vail SNOTEL site was at 49 percent of normal, while the Copper and Fremont sites were at 87 percent and 100 percent, respectively.
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“As a local water provider, where we want to see what might be available for our customers is right here in our basin,” Johnson said.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is the second-largest water provider on the Western Slope. While most of the water for Colorado’s Front Range is stored in large reservoirs, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District reservoirs are augmentation and not used for direct supply.
‘Paying Closer Attention’
Streams need to flow to supply water to customers. That’s why Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is keeping a close eye on snowpack levels and streamflow predictions.
“We are paying closer attention,” Johnson said. “By the end of February, we might move a little bit more on that.”
According to the January Natural Resources Conservation Service Streamflow Forecast Summary, the Eagle River below Gypsum is predicted to have a streamflow that is 79 percent of average. No forecast point in the state is predicting above-normal streamflows.
“Eagle looks to be reasonably well set up to have potentially near-average streamflows,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service snow survey. “Eagle is kind of in the middle of the pack, but in general, that region is faring as well as anywhere in the state.”
While Johnson said the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District does not feel either anxious or optimistic yet, staff members have been reviewing procedures from 2012, should 2018 turn out to be another drought year.
One of the biggest water savings comes from reducing outdoor use such as watering lawns and landscaping. According to Johnson, about 95 percent of water used indoors returns to the river after it’s been treated and somewhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of water used outdoors returns to the river.
“Indoor use has much less of an effect on the overall streamflow,” Johnson said. “So for us, that is a really huge thing around how we operate in low water years.”
In 2012, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District held stakeholder meetings throughout the spring, so water users were aware they might be asked to cut back. The goal was to find a healthy balance between using less water but not negatively impacting the economy or home values, part of which is having aesthetically pleasing greenery and landscaping.
An outdoor watering schedule that permits watering three days a week before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. is in effect year-round. Unlike other water providers, where restrictions may be triggered when a reservoir dips below a certain level, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District does not have a specific threshold when more stringent regulations would be implemented.
Johnson said the district made some operational changes to respond to the 2012 drought, such as reassigning staff, closely monitoring streamflows and fireproofing the valley’s 50 water storage tanks and booster pump systems.
Although they are not switching gears just yet, if dry conditions continue in Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s service area again this year, then the water provider will respond much as it has in years past, Johnson said.
“I would say we are prepared,” Johnson said. “We have done this before. It’s kind of a bummer that it was only six years ago. I think as the new normal is established, a lot of this is becoming routine. We did not have water regulations prior to the 2000 drought, but by 2012, the regulations were known. We are investing a little bit of time now, but it’s too early to go full force.”
The statewide stats are stark. According to Wetlaufer, as of Tuesday, the 2018 water year has received just five inches of snow-water equivalent to make for the third-lowest snowpack statewide on record. Only 1980 and 2000 were drier, with 3.7 inches and 4.8 inches of snow-water equivalent, respectively.
Not even last week’s storms made much of a difference on a Colorado River Basin-wide scale. But snowpack totals vary by region, with the northern part of the state generally doing better than the southern half.
“The San Juans have seen it the most with very minimal precipitation for the last four months. … We are dealing with a pretty substantial deficit at this point,” Wetlaufer said.