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Tough water measures on tap

Cliff Thompson
Lewis Atencio fixes the pattern of his lawn sprinkler at his Gypsum home.
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New water restrictions, rates and sanctions for water use and abuse are being considered today by the governing boards of our local water supply organizations. The proposed measures are aimed at reducing daily water consumption by 50 percent. Those restrictions could make area lawns turn brown as consumption is converted to conservation.

Residential water users consume 14 million gallons a day in the Vail-to-Wolcott service area for Eagle River Water and Sanitation.

“The feeling here is this drought is beyond what we imagined could happen,” said Linn Schorr, engineering manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, which supply water to approximately 22,000 users. “We never thought it could get this bad. We didn’t have a plan for this.”



The concern is that there will not be enough water to satisfy wants and needs in January and February, the lowest flow months in area streams and some of the busiest months at the area’s winter resorts. It’s a scenario that could be compounded if the three-year drought continues.

The fear of drying up Gore Creek, severely reducing flows in the Eagle River and reducing stock of stored water is driving the conservation measures.



In neighboring Summit County, similar restrictions are being enforced; and most metropolitan areas along Colorado’s Front Range are reducing water consumption by 30 percent or more.

Not since 1579

There’s historical evidence suggesting a drought of this severity hasn’t been seen for centuries – in fact, since about the same time Sir Francis Drake first laid eyes on California during his voyage around the world.



“We studied tree rings, and the last time this area encountered a situation like this was in 1579,” said Bob Weaver, an environmental engineer with Hydrosphere of Boulder.

Weaver was hired by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District to project Gore Creek and the Eagle River flows.

“That drought lasted 20 years, from 1579 to 1600,” he said, referring to a dry period that reduced the flow of the Colorado River by 40 percent.

But this drought is worse, he added, as the average flows for the Colorado Basin this summer are averaging just 20 percent of normal.

Bleak projections

New projections for local streams and aquifers are painting a worst-case scenario. Streams are flowing at just 20 percent of normal – levels not encountered in the last 200 to 500 years, one hydrologist said. Snowpack at Vail Pass last winter was approximately 60 percent of normal, but regular rain and warmer than normal temperatures caused an early runoff, leaving little water for later in the year.

The Eagle River at Avon, flowing Wednesday at 26 percent of it mean of 210 feet per second, or cfs. It could reach flows of 25 cfs this winter. Gore Creek, now at 23 cfs, could hit less than 10 cfs at its confluence with the Eagle River.

Lawn-watering, meanwhile, accounts for 60 to 70 percent of water use in summer. Current lawn watering restrictions many parts of the county consist watering on alternate days, with no watering on Mondays.

That could change drastically, however.

Individual consumers could see their lawns turn brown this summer if the drought deepens. Lawn watering schedules as sparse as once a week are being considered.

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has requested the town of Vail, which typically uses 15 million gallons a summer, reduce its irrigating by 50 percent, effective immediately. For a town that in part attracts tourists with its appearance, the watering restrictions will soon be evident.

Vail town manager Bob McLaurin said the town’s computerized evapo-transpiration irrigation system will be dialed back to hit the 50 percent level.

“We’re going to slash water use by 50 percent,” he said. “We’re going to try and keep the place looking as good as we can.”

One of the first victims of the drought will be the Donovan Park. It won’t get sod or seed this summer.

Tough on golf courses

It’s tough news for water-dependant venues like the Vail Golf Course, said superintendent Jim Myers, who said he makes his living keeping fairways and greens, well, green.

He said the aim at the golf course will be to reduce water use by 25 percent. In fact, the daily use of water at most golf courses varies. It’s determined by how much water is lost to evaporation, Myers said. The golf course has a water right of 1.63 million gallons per day, but only a small fraction of that is used for irrigating the course during the four month irrigation season, Myers said.

Avon has already scaled back its water use by 40 percent, said Town Manager Bill Efting, adding the town will work to hit the 50 percent mark as soon as possible.

In Eagle and Gypsum, alternate voluntary lawn-watering is being observed. Eagle uses approximately 2 million gallons per day; and Gypsum, 1.5 million. Eagle Town manager Willy Powell said stricter measures will be examined as they become necessary. Major water users in the Brush Creek Valley have voluntarily curtailed some of their water diversions to help maintain streamflows, Powell said. Gypsum has discussed stricter water conservation measures.

Without rain, however, the flow of the river continues to decrease sharply.

“We could get into a situation where there just isn’t enough water to go around,” said Weaver. “The physical supply could become so limited there’s not enough to meet all the needs. If we conserve now we could postpone that from occurring.”

Aquifer draw-down

In Vail, the flow of Gore Creek has been reduced by pumping 2,000 gallon-per-minute wells drilled 160 to 200 feet into the alluvium at the east end of the Vail Golf Course. That aquifer is being “mined,” said a lawyer for the water district, Glenn Porzak.

“We are definitely mining the aquifer,” he said.

The depletion of the stream flow in Gore Creek is almost identical to what is pumped, he said.

“You’re living off that aquifer now,” Weaver said, adding that when normal precipitation eventually returns, it will be partially absorbed by that aquifer, which is like a sponge and it needs to be kept wet.

The concern is that too much pumping could put a “hole” in the aquifer and severely reduce flows of the stream between Bighorn Creek and the outflow of the wastewater treatment plan in town, said Weaver. That wastewater stream can reach 2.5 cfs at peak output.

The reservoir card

The one advantage most upvalley water users have, said Porzak, is the three headwaters storage basins that can release flows into the Eagle River and Gore Creek. There are 300 acre-feet of water in the Black Lakes reservoirs atop Vail Pass, 2,000 acre-feet in Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale, and 500 acre-feet in Homestake Reservoir, south of Minturn.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to supply the annual water needs of a family of four.

The temptation to use the above reservoirs to maintain current water use needs to be resisted, Porzak said, in case we encounter another drought year.

“We’ll go into the winter with the reservoirs full,” he said. “We always looked at the storage for November to February, but it looks like we’ll be using some of it now.”

Nearly 450 million gallons of that water goes for snowmaking on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains.

That means those reserves will need to be carefully apportioned.

“We have to supplement eight month, instead of three, until the streamflows come up again,” said Schorr.

The district increased its rates earlier this year, charging for water based on a 3,000-square-foot single-family equivalent basis. Its previous rate structure was $3.66 per 1,000 gallons, with a minimum charge based on 5,000 gallons. That’s $18.30 per account per month.

A watering ban on thirsty new sod or seeded lawns is in effect until Aug. 15 – possibly longer for district water users.

The river flow projections are made as a worst-case scenario and do not include the unpredictable wild weather card.

Long-term weather forecasts call for normal or above normal precipitation for Colorado’s mountains. So far, however, that has not occurred.


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