Snowpack far below ‘normal’ levels; local district’s water efficiency plan targets irrigation | VailDaily.com

Snowpack far below ‘normal’ levels; local district’s water efficiency plan targets irrigation

Much of western and southern Colorado is in some form of drought. Most of the Eagle County area remains in a low classification, “abnormally dry” (yellow).

VAIL — Much of the upper Eagle River Valley's water supply comes from stream flows. Those flows are driven by snowpack. And we're coming off a snow-short season.

At the Vail Town Council's afternoon meeting on Tuesday, May 1, representatives from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District provided an update about current snowpack, as well as the progress of a water-efficiency plan for the district.

As you'd expect, the snowpack on Vail Mountain is far below "normal" levels, based on a 30-year median. The most recent data shows that snowpack is still far below that level, but spring storms finally boosted Vail's snowpack above the record-low snow year of 2011-12. Better yet, while snowpack on Vail Mountain had melted away at this point in 2012, there's still snow on the hillsides right now.

Some good news

The news is better at measurement sites on Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass, the sites nearest the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

At Copper Mountain, snowpack is very close to normal, while Fremont Pass' snowpack is slightly above normal.

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That's good news for both Gore Creek and the Eagle River.

Still, water supplies won't be plentiful, perhaps closer to the drought of 2001-02.

District communications manager Diane Johnson told council members that 2012 compelled the district to do some serious work on water conservation. District employees have kept up that work, she said.

In addition to day-to-day work, the district is also working on a water efficiency plan required by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Local districts that have those plans are eligible for grants and loans from that state agency.

District water demand management coordinator Maureen Mulcahy told council members that despite population growth, the district has already reduced the amount of water consumed by individual homes.

Efficiency planning can reduce that use even farther, she said.

'Wasting less'

Amy Schweig, the district's assistant communications director, told the council that part of the efficiency plan is to encourage customers to cut their outdoor water use.

"It's not about using less water; it's about wasting less water," Schweig said.

While water-efficient toilets and other indoor fixtures are important, Schweig said outdoor water use represents the biggest opportunity for efficiency. While as much as 95 percent of indoor water is returned to the district's system — and, ultimately, makes it back into local streams — very little water used outdoors is returned to the river.

"Water is being used that doesn't add value to the landscape," Schweig said.

Council member Kim Langmaid noted that a soil moisture meter can go a long way to making irrigation more efficient. That information can cut way back on over-watering, she added.

Spreading the message

Mulcahy told town officials there are ways local governments can help spread the efficiency message. Those steps include efficient use in public landscaping.

But, Mulcahy added, towns can also update water efficiency standards and incorporate them into town codes.

In Vail, Ford Park, the Vail Golf Club and other facilities use untreated water for irrigation. That saves energy and money in treatment costs.

And, Johnson added, while golf courses across the valley use a lot of water, they are "among the most efficient" users.

Johnson noted that people watching snowpack and temperature are starting to refer to the current dry period, which dates to 1999, as a "new normal." That means snowpacks will stay lower and melt more quickly than they have in the past.

And, while the Vail Valley is in relatively good shape this year, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly 30 percent of the land mass in the lower 48 states is in some form of drought.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 and smiller@vaildaily.com.

By the numbers

9 percent: Increase in “single-family equivalent” housing units in the upper valley since 2007.

15 percent: Decrease in water use per single-family equivalent in the same period.

7 percent: Decrease in total customer water deliveries in that period.

95 percent: Amount of indoor water use returned to the local water system.

Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District