Mild Vail Valley winter drives worries for a dry summer in 2018

This SNOWTEL map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service shows snow pack conditions as of last Friday. While the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is just 85 percent of the 100-year average, local water providers noted that figure can change drastically if Eagle County sees spring snowstorms or a wet June.
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Gypsum Water Summit

What: The town of Gypsum will present a discussion about potential drought in 2018, current conditions and possible municipal actions.

When: Tuesday, Feb. 27

Time: Noon to 3:30 p.m.

Where: Gypsum Town Hall

Details: Discussion topics will include the scope of potential drought within the town, action plans for parks and community vegetation, residential and commercial watering restrictions, new development landscape restrictions, enforcement of violations, and individual subdivision fact sheets. Gypsum residents and business operators are urged to attend. Refreshments will be provided. To learn more call 970-524-7514.

EAGLE COUNTY — Concerns that this year’s mild winter will evolve into a dry spring and summer have local domestic water providers watching snowpack figures and readying their messages should drought conditions hit the valley in 2018.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the town of Gypsum is hosting a water summit — an information session aimed at letting residents know what water restrictions could look like if the current weather pattern continues. At the town of Eagle and at Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, water regulations are an on-going effort to make sure everyone uses water wisely, restrictions are the next step if customers fail to do that.

According to Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll, the most recent snowpack reading for the municipal watershed is at 30 percent of the 30-year average. While there is still time for that to turn around, he said the town wanted to begin discussions with residents about what a dry year means because many of them have never had that experience.

“We want to have the dialogue with our residents,” Shroll said. “The last time we had to look at water restrictions, our population was probably around 3,000 people.”

With Gypsum’s population now twice that amount, Shroll said residents need to be educated about drought condition watering restrictions, especially since the town recently revised those rules.

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“We haven’t touched our water rates in years,” Shroll said, noting that depending on where they live, town residents see different rate structures. In older residential areas, domestic water is used for outdoor irrigation but in some of the new subdivisions — such as Buckhorn Valley and Chatfield Corners — nonpotable water is used for irrigation.

The town’s water ordinance calls out 15 different categories of residential and commercial users, both in town and out of town, but the base rate for Gypsum water service is $25 per month for a maximum of 20,000 gallons. As the town looks head to a possible dry year, Gypsum has instituted drought surcharges in their water rates. The surcharge will be 20 percent of the 1,000 gallon rate for users who exceed the maximum amount of water allowed for their categories.

As Gypsum communicates this new surcharge plan, Shroll said the town also wants to make sure residents are aware of the voluntary water use restrictions that are already in place:

Water lawns every other day and apply a maximum of 1 inch of water

Water lawns between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Wash cars and equipment no more than once a week

Refrain from using water to clean off driveways, parking lots or streets

When the town imposes mandatory water restrictions, residents are required to abide by those rules and fines can be levied if they don’t.

As Gypsum lays out the rules it expects its residents to follow, Shroll said the town will also abide by the regulations.

“We are not going to ask our residents to conserve if we aren’t willing to do it as well,” he said. “Even with nonpotable irrigation systems at most of our town parks, we will be looking at cutting back our irrigation.

Use water wisely

“Use water wisely” is the mantra at Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. That message is true in both wet years and dry years, but when the snowpack is below average, wise water usage is more important than ever.

“We are really connected to our water resources here and they are our water supply,” said Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “What we are choosing to use is coming directly out of our water sources.”

Because people respect the recreational and aesthetic values that local creeks and rivers provide, Johnson noted that the conservation message is very tangible.

As the summer months approach, the district is tracking snowpack information, particularly at three sites monitored by the US. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOWTEL report. Those sites are showing snowpack below the 30 year average, but Johnson noted it is still too early to predict a drought year.

“They (the SNOWTEL readings) are a snapshot of one location on one day,” she said. “But we are taking our preparations seriously.”

Regulation, not restriction

The district has recent history to learn from as it looks ahead to a possible dry summer. In 2012, when stream flows in August were very low, the district reached out to a stakeholder group to share information and ask for a voluntary reduction in water use. That effort was successful and the district never had to move to water restrictions.

On that subject, Johnson said if water restrictions become necessary, users are not forewarned. Johnson noted if they have noticed that more restrictive restrictions are coming, then customers often increase the amount of water in anticipation. That behavior makes the imposition of restrictions counter-productive, especially when every day conservation is encouraged.

“We really want people to take conservation seriously and reduce the amount of water use,” Johnson said.

The town of Eagle and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s water regulations mirror one another. They are:

No outdoor water use on Mondays

Odd numbered addresses can irrigate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

Even numbered addresses can irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays

Outdoor water use is allowed before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Eagle Public Works Director Bryon McGinnis noted that the current readings show snowpack at 85 percent of normal, saying that late winter and spring snowfall could still bring up the average. He echoed Johnson’s message that water regulations are always important for the town’s resources and urged people to voluntarily comply with the rules.

“We really want nobody to water on Mondays to get our tank filled up,” McGinnis said. “We will be asking people to conserve on their use and this year we will probably be more strict than in previous years.”

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