Vail Valley streamflows aren’t to 2018 levels — yet
Our hot, dry, windy summer so far could impact water supplies, and might affect fishing on lower-elevation streams
The drought of 2018 was a record-setter. We aren’t back to those days — yet.
As a warm, dry, windy summer continues, local water and wildlife officials are keeping a sharp eye on streamflows, river temperatures and water use.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which serves the valley between Edwards and Vail, is already sounding the alert about outdoor water usage.
That district primarily pulls water from the Eagle River and returns it at wastewater treatment plants. About 95% of all water used indoors is returned to the streams. Outdoor water is a different story. Virtually none of the water used for outdoor irrigation returns to the river.
In August of 2018, the district sent hundreds of letters to customers who were using large amounts of water. Those letters stated that fines would be issued to customers using more than 10,000 gallons per week per “single family equivalent” unless they cut water use immediately. Sanctions could also include service disconnection.
Diane Johnson, the district’s communications and public affairs officer, said no one had their water shut off after those letters were sent. And, she added, many customers were quick to comply with the demand to cut their use.
Still too much watering
Two years later, “Far too many properties are overusing water,” Johnson said.
The district has five billing tiers, depending on how much water a customer uses.
“Nobody should be in tiers four or five,” Johnson said, adding that a large majority of customers are using water responsibly.
The exception is local golf courses, which largely use untreated water. Johnson said golf courses in general are wise users of water.
Johnson said if residential customers did anything like the job course managers do, the district would have much less to worry about.
The good news is that streamflows now are well above levels seen in late July and August of 2018. In that hot, dry summer, streamflows along Gore Creek and the upper Eagle River were only about 40% of normal.
The flows this year are double that, except for Gore Creek.
That’s true throughout the upper Colorado River watershed.
Randy Hampton of Colorado Parks and Wildlife said streamflows throughout the upper Colorado are in the 80% to 90% of normal range.
Still, water temperatures are rising.
The July 12 temperature was 64.4 degrees on the Eagle River at Milk Creek, just west of Wolcott. There’s real danger to fish when water temperatures exceed 70 degrees.
The water got that warm, and warmer, in 2018. That prompted wildlife officials to impose voluntary fishing closures on the Eagle River.
We aren’t there yet, Hampton said. “Yet” is the important word in that sentence.
‘Unless the weather changes’
“Unless the weather changes, we could have voluntary closures on the rivers,” Hampton said, adding that wildlife officials are asking people fishing to report fish kills or signs of stress in those fish.
Hampton said state officials are talking to guide companies and others to ensure awareness of rising stream temperatures.
Streamflows will continue to decline and water temperatures will continue to rise unless the weather changes. Some change may be on the horizon.
Tom Renwick, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said there seems to be some moisture moving into the desert southwest. But a high-pressure system over this area is moving toward eastern Texas. For now, though, moisture from the southwest is being shunted into Utah and Nevada.
In 2018, a high pressure system over the desert southwest persisted for months. In fact, it gained its own nickname: Ridiculously Resilient Ridge. We don’t have that, yet, and there’s still hope that the local monsoonal rains will come in July and August. There have also been some scattered showers bringing rain to parts of the valley over the past several days.
Renwick noted that most of western Colorado is a desert. In that environment, “one or two days of pretty heavy rain can change everything,” he said.
For now, though, people are encouraged to watch their water use and watch the streams.
“And let’s all hope for some rain,” Hampton said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.