Streamflows in the upper Vail Valley are nearing all-time low levels
Red Flag warning issued
The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag fire weather warning for all of Eagle County, effective from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12. Those warnings mean that a combination of gusty winds, dry fuels and low relative humidity could cause any fires to spread quickly. Please, be careful.
By the numbers
1,270: Flow, in cubic feet per second, at the Colorado River near Dotsero.
1,360: Median streamflow for that site.
28.7: Flow, in cubic feet per second, of the Eagle River near Minturn.
57: Percentage of normal flow at that site.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
EAGLE COUNTY — Streamflows in the Upper Eagle River Valley are approaching record lows this summer, the result of a continuing drought and summer monsoon rains that never came.
According to Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, this year’s late-summer streamflows are currently below those recorded in 2002, the previous record-low year.
In an email, Johnson wrote that September rains in that year boosted streamflows to near-normal levels. Those rains haven’t come this year.
As of Sunday, Sept. 9, Gore Creek in Vail above Red Sandstone Creek was running at just 45 percent of normal. On the same date, the Eagle River at Avon was running at 51 percent of normal.
Those flows are being bolstered somewhat by the district adjusting to increase “in-stream flows” to support aquatic life in the rivers. The state-issued rights for those flows are junior to the ones the district holds.
Releases for in-stream flows have bolstered streamflows elsewhere. For instance, the Colorado River at Dotsero was running at 1,270 cubic feet per second, far above the all-time-low flow of 673 cubic feet per second measured in 2002. That year was before requirements were imposed to maintain in-stream flows.
In an email, Johnson wrote that the upper-valley water district is “committed to doing as much as we can to help streamflows.”
That has led to the district to ask — or require — users to cut back on outdoor watering.
Cutback requests — and demands
In July, district officials asked customers for a voluntary 25 percent reduction in outdoor water use. Many customers, including local governments, cut their outdoor water use by 25 percent to 50 percent.
District officials on Monday, Aug. 13, sent letters to hundreds of customers who were using the most water — more than 10,000 gallons per week in some cases.
Johnson wrote that the district’s call for reduced outdoor watering has been well received.
“We can’t say exactly the effect on local streams because it’s hard to know how much more streams would have dropped without people making a concerted effort to reduce their water use,” Johnson wrote.
On the other hand, very little irrigation water ends up back in local streams, while almost all indoor water use ends up being put back at water treatment facilities.
And, Johnson wrote, the amount of water produced by the district declined throughout August, despite continued warm, dry weather.
A letter included in the district’s billing statements for September notes that landscaping this time of year needs about 50 percent of the water needed in July. The letter continues by asking customers to adjust their sprinkler systems to water less.
“Turning (irrigation) down even more may have no longterm effect on your yard, as turf experts always remind us that grass can go weeks without water.”
The letter continues, “If streams worsen, we may ban outdoor water use to protect aquatic life and stream health.”
Adequate supplies — for now
Still, water supplies up and down the valley remain adequate for domestic use.
The town of Eagle has for most of the summer been on “stage two” outdoor watering restrictions.
Those restrictions prohibit over-watering — letting water run off a lawn and into the street. Restrictions also ban outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Eagle’s restrictions limit watering to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for those with odd-numbered addresses. Even-numbered addresses are allowed to water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Schools, parks and industrial sites can water on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Those restrictions roughly mirror the upper valley district’s regular watering rules.
At the town of Eagle Public Works Department, Debbie Fibkins said the town hasn’t issued any tickets this summer.
“People are complying with what they’re being asked to do,” Fibkins said.
At the town of Gypsum Public Works Department, water operator Emmanuel Quezada said that town’s supplies are holding solid through the drought. In fact, he said, the town hasn’t imposed watering restrictions this summer.
Instead, those who use more than the base amount of water allocated simply pay more.
Every “single-family equivalent” — essentially every residential water tap — pays for 20,000 gallons per month as part of the base water charge. Those who use more, pay more.
As summer turns to fall, streamflows will remain low and will drop more through the winter. With a healthy snow year, streamflows may return to more-normal levels.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.