Here’s how fast the Vail Valley emptied after the ski resorts closed |

Here’s how fast the Vail Valley emptied after the ski resorts closed

Wastewater treatment plants in Edwards, Avon and especially Vail, had to adapt quickly to reduced flows

This chart from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District shows the drop in wastewater treatment, with 2019 and 2020 compared.
Not the ‘flush factor’ There once were stories about how the “flush factor” could give a rough idea of how many people were in the valley during holiday weeks. Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson said that formula never really worked, and really doesn’t work that way now. Wastewater coming into treatment plants once was roughly figured on gallons per person per day. With changes in water systems, that formula no longer works.

If you want an idea of how quickly the Vail Valley emptied following the March 14 closure of Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, look at the charts attached to this story.

Those charts, provided by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, show a steep drop in the amount of wastewater the district processed between March 14 and March 23.

Moving into April, the treatment flows are still below normal, which indicates that a number of people who would normally be here have also left.

The drop in treatment numbers equates with the speed with which people left the valley in the wake of the local COVID-19 virus outbreak.

That drop in the amount of wastewater flowing into treatment plants presented a sizable problem for the people running the treatment facilities in Vail, Avon and Edwards.

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“We’re used to seeing fluctuations, but we’ve never seen something like this,” said Siri Roman, the district’s director of operations.

The challenge in operating a wastewater treatment plant is ensuring that what comes out of the plants meets state water quality standards.

The district’s wastewater plants’ biological systems, in which bacteria are used to clean what’s coming in, can’t just turn a switch to keep high-quality effluent flowing into Gore Creek.

“There’s an art to it,” Roman said. “It’s almost like its own ecosystem.”

Quick, precise work

That work had to be done quickly, too. Roman said the Vail plant, which sees the most fluctuation due to visitors, turned off two-thirds of the facility in four days.

Beyond maintaining water quality in the present, Roman said that the system needs enough beneficial bacteria for when visitor numbers rebound.

Diane Johnson, the district’s communications and public affairs manager, said people running the district’s plants for both water and wastewater are familiar with fluctuations in demand. There are even event calendars posted in the facilities to remind operators when things need to be ramped up and turned down.

“That’s not the case elsewhere,” Johnson said.

But no one was ready for March 14.

When the resorts closed, “everybody left,” Johnson said. “Showers stopped, toilets stopped, food prep stopped … no one’s ever had to do that before.”

Roman said that the staff at the plants rose to the occasion, working within both water quality parameters and the social distancing rules to slow the spread of the virus.

New challenges

The good news is those plant operators already gear up every day to deal with viruses and pathogens, including wearing personal protective equipment on the job. But, Johnson said, COVID-19 presented new challenges.

“There were a lot more things to suddenly have to layer onto the job they already have,” she said.

Roman said she’s been impressed with the way the team came together to face the challenges.

“It’s been remarkable to see,” she said.

And, Roman added, the district’s distancing and protective gear practices have also limited absenteeism to normal levels.

“Everyone’s taking personal responsibility,” Roman said.

Flowing faucets and flushing toilets are taken for granted in the developed world. But, Roman said, a lot has to happen to keep everything working.

“It’s been really neat to see the team come together on this,” Roman said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at

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