Eagle River flows are kind of a mirage

It’s time to cut way back on your outdoor watering

While much of the state is no longer in drought, the northwest part of the state, including Eagle County, remains gripped in severe drought.

It’s easy to look at the most recent streamflow numbers on the upper Eagle River and be optimistic. But there’s another story behind the numbers.

While much of Colorado has shaken off drought this year, the story is different in northwestern Colorado, including Eagle County.

The top left portion of the state map shows the region in some level of drought. Eagle County ranges from moderate drought in the upper elevations to extreme drought through much of the northern and western portions.

So why is the Eagle River’s flow relatively robust? The short answer is “legal mandates.”

Colorado Springs Utilities, which holds the rights to much of the water in Homestake reservoir, has obligations to put a good bit of that water into the Eagle and, ultimately, Colorado rivers.

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As of Sept. 10, Colorado Springs was releasing 22.6 cubic feet per second into the river. That release on Sept. 16 will increase to 33.9 cubic feet per second.

Colorado Springs Utilities Senior Project Engineer Justin Zeisler said that release fulfills obligations Colorado Springs has to essentially repay earlier releases from Green Mountain Reservoir into the Colorado River.

Those releases are coordinated with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Denver Water and other entities to help ensure streamflow levels for the Colorado River. One cubic foot per second adds up to a flow of nearly 450 gallons per minute.

Without those reservoir releases, current streamflows in the Eagle would probably be more like the current flow in Gore Creek. That stream is currently running at a little less than half of the seasonal norm.

Looking at current streamflows, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which serves the valley from East Vail to Edwards, is asking customers to cut way back on outdoor watering.

While virtually all indoor water use eventually finds its way back to the river, the reverse is true for outdoor watering.

Diane Johnson, the district’s communications and public affairs manager, said the district needs to return as much water to the stream as possible, particularly during low-flow period.

“What you use on your landscape is coming from the river,” Johnson said, adding many customers are still watering. At this point in the year, most of that watering isn’t needed. That’s particularly true of lawns.

“But it looks like a fair amount of customers are using way more water than is justified for their plants,” Johnson said.

Cutting back on outdoor watering cuts down on the amount of water diverted from local streams. That, in turn, helps the stream’s health.

District customers are billed according to how much water they use. Johnson said some big-gallon users are willing to pay for whatever they use. But that’s not the point, she added.

“It’s not about money or the ability to pay,” Johnson said. “We don’t want that check. The community really needs the water. We need healthy rivers and that environmental amenity. As the climate changes, it gets warmer, and seasons get a little longer, that puts more stress on our rivers.”

By the numbers

47%: Gore Creek’s Sept. 9 streamflow compared to the 30-median.

89%: Eagle River near Minturn’s Sept. 9 streamflow compared to the 30-year median.

71%: Eagle River in Avon’s Sept. 9 streamflow compared to the 30-year median.

Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

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