How low can they go?
Water experts say it will take at least three years for the reservoir to get back to normal levels if and when normal precipitation resumes.
“It all depends on the weather,” says Marc Waage of the Denver Water District. “If it continues to be dry, the reservoir will be lower next year than it is this year. It would take one of our best runoff years to have a chance of filling it back up in one year.”
Dillon Reservoir is now about 72 percent full –or 25 feet below full. It has a capacity of 254,000 acre-feet of water and now is holding 183,000 acre-feet.
The question on everyone’s mind is just how far the reservoir’s water level will fall, and Waage says he can’t answer that. That’s in part because Denver Water officials have never seen conditions like these. In the past they’ve said the need for water on the Front Range could force them to completely drain the reservoir. Waage, however, will neither confirm nor deny that possibility.
“I don’t have any real experience to draw on to answer that question,” says Waage, a 16-year Denver Water employee. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we drain all our reservoirs. But 2002, so far, is on pace to be the worst of any year we use in our planning models. We haven’t thought that far ahead as to which reservoirs would get drained first. That’s the sort of stuff we’re working on right now.”
In addition to Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water owns the Cheesman and Williams Fork Reservoirs. Those bodies of water have been drained down further than Dillon, with Cheesman now sitting at 43 percent of its capacity and Williams Fork at 56 percent.
Waage says Denver Water plans to release a forecast for drainage of the agency’s reservoirs this month.
The sky – not rain – is falling
None of this is news to County Commissioner Tom Long, who’s been warning locals about the impacts of the current drought for months. Long has been speaking about it so often it’s giving him a reputation as a water-issues “Eeyore,” so-called for the pessimistic donkey in Winnie the Pooh. Dillon Marina Manager Bob Evans calls Long “Mr. Water Gloom and Doom.” It’s not a label that takes Long by surprise.
“I feel like I’ve got a black cloud with me everywhere I go,” Long says. “But I’m not trying to make unnecessary concern. Things are bad this year. The recovery from this thing is probably going to take multiple years. If we have a repeat of this past winter with low snow, then next year could be really dire. You could have very little or no water in the reservoirs.”
Long repeatedly has said Dillon Reservoir could end the year with 75,000 to 100,000 acre-feet of water – or just about 30 percent of its capacity.
Waage doesn’t deny that could be the case, either.
“That’s close to some early forecasts that we made, but they’re out of date now,” Waage says. “We’re going to revise our forecast.”
Waage also won’t describe what kind of scenario that revision predicts for the Dillon Reservoir.
“I don’t know yet,” Waage says. “It depends on how we balance our water within all of our reservoirs, and it depends on how effective we think the mandatory water restrictions are going to be.”
Denver Water’s board of directors voted unanimously last month to enact mandatory water restrictions. The district’s million-plus customers will only be allowed to water on specific days a week between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. Those restrictions are directly aimed at keeping Denver Water’s reservoirs from falling any further.
“The lower our supplies get, the more severe our restriction programs will be,” Waage said. “We don’t ever want to completely run out of water.”
When is it a drought?
While this year is the first Denver Water’s reservoirs haven’t filled, snowpack has been below average for five years running, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“The last five years have been below average on a statewide basis, and this year is by far the lowest of all those years,” says Mike Gillespie, a surveyor who has been measuring statewide snowpack and reservoir storage for almost 20 years. “Snowpack was 52 percent of average on April 1.”
Yet Gillespie is reluctant to call current weather trends a drought.
“Drought to one person isn’t drought to another person,” he says. “What’s really magnified the impacts this year has been that since about April 1, the precipitation patterns have really dried out across the state. Last year’s runoff wasn’t that great and summer precipitation wasn’t that good, so we had dry soils as we went into winter. So what little snow we did have, quite a bit of it went back into the soil, which always happens before you can get runoff. A lot of things aligned themselves to magnify the situation this year.”
Gillespie isn’t buying the theory that Colorado is in a drought cycle, however.
“Every year, there’s an equal chance we’ll get below-average precipitation and above-average precipitation,” he says. “Statistically, every year is a new ball game. You just can’t predict it.”
Since 1981, Colorado has sustained a distinct wet period. Drought hit the state in the 1930s and the 1950s, in 1977 and in 1980 and 1981, according to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. The 1980-81 drought generated costly impacts on the ski industry and initiated a huge investment in snowmaking equipment.
It’s not about the lake
For Long that’s an important message – the impacts of continuing drought aren’t limited to lake aesthetics.
“There’s a potential for fish kill in some of these reservoirs and lakes, more wells going dry and the extreme fire danger,” Long says. “And the economy continues to go south.”
It’s already being felt at local marinas.
Dillon Marina’s Evans, trying hard to look at the bright side, says fishing in the lake is better than it’s ever been because the fish are concentrated in a smaller area. Marina business, however, is down, he says.
“People who were still going to come because of the drought are scared away because of the fires. We changing our marketing more toward locals and tourists (who are already in the county),” he says. “I’m not so much worried about this year as I am about next. If we don’t get a lot of snow, it’s going to really affect our economy.”
And that includes everyone from ski area employees and ranchers to waiters and bartenders.
“The real cost is in human terms,” Long says. “This is very serious. We all just need to prepare as best we can.”
“We definitely need a well-above-average snowpack to eliminate the deficit – 150-plus percent on average by April 1 would be probably about ideal,” adds Gillespie. “Average doesn’t quite cut it when you’ve got a big deficit. We need more than that to recover. Then we could probably fill our reservoirs back up and balance things out.”
Denver Water’s Waage, meanwhile, says he, too, wants High Country residents to remember that Dillon Reservoir wasn’t built as a recreational or economic amenity to mountain communities.
Its primary purpose is to provide water to Denver.
“Denver Water has only one mission, and that’s water supply,” he said.