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Water conservation suffers during drought

Cliff Thompson

Conservation has been slow to materialize. Water use in the area served by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, from East Vail to Wolcott, actually has increased 10 percent over last year and 1 percent per week since watering restrictions were announced Aug. 2.

Nearly 500 water violation notices have been issued, district officials said, although no fines have been levied.

Those fines for violating watering restrictions range from $100 for the first infraction to $500 for subsequent infractions – even having your water shut off if the violations continue.



Some of the increase in water use can be attributed to additional population and development, as well as the dearth of rain this year. June saw 0.08 inches, while July saw 0.98 inches, about half of average. July’s average daily temperature, meanwhile, was 12 degrees higher than average.

Water use Aug. 5, the first no-watering Monday, actually increased 14 percent, or 400,000 gallons, over the previous Monday’s water use. The situation had been anticipated by the water district’s Steve Wilson, who oversees water production.



“I thought they would water more hours and fewer day and we would see consumption go up, and that’s what occurred,” he said.

Water production from the Vail and Avon water plants for Aug. 2 to 7 totalled 54.4 million gallons, Wilson said.

Last week, additional outside watering restrictions were enacted, limiting lawn irrigation to two days a week, from midnight to 8 a.m. For the first time ever, water district officials expressed concern about having enough water just for domestic needs. And again they braced for a spike in water use.



But this time it failed to materialize because the weather gods intervened.

The long-anticipated monsoonal rains materialized last week, bringing scattered and often heavy showers to the area.

Avon was hit by a fast-moving rain cell that produced just over an inch of rain in 15 minutes. That caused some gullywashing and localized mudflows, but more importantly it took pressure off the dwindling streamflows used for sprinkling and domestic consumption.

“Unless we get really consistent rains, (streamflows are) not going to stay up and will drop rapidly,” said Bob Weaver, a hydrologist with Hydrosphere in Boulder, which has been hired to study the Eagle River and Gore Creek. “The moisture deficit in the system is very significant. We’re seeing the cumulative effects of a long period of drought.”

For the short term, the National Climate Data Center forecasts a 55 percent chance of a wetter-than-average monsoon and a 45 percent chance of a drier-than-average monsoon, Weaver said.

Still dry

Under pressure from the community to keep water for irrigation flowing, water boards have refrained from an outright irrigation ban, as recommended by water district staff.

However, a ban will be invoked if the flow of the Eagle River at Avon dips below 25 cubic feet per second, or cfs, for 72 consecutive hours. Before the recent rains, the flow of the river dipped as low as 36 cfs.

The long-term outlook, however, may be for drought to continue, and water officials are stepping up water education efforts.

Earlier this week workers distributed 15,000 flyers listing the new watering restrictions. A mass mailing was made as well, said Wilson, who has six people on staff patrolling the area – even on weekends and evenings – looking for water-use violations.

While the rains have eased the demands for water – flows temporarily have nearly tripled in local streams – the water situation is the grimmest ever witnessed here. Streams have been flowing at an unprecedented 20 percent of historic levels – something not seen for 500 or more years, hydrologists say.

The rain that bolstered river flows lasts for three days, then the pattern of declining flows continues, said Weaver, who has been hired to study the Eagle River and Gore Creek.

“It’s declining at a very high rate,” Weaver said.

But it’s not the current situation that worries water suppliers. It’s what to expect in the low-flow months of January and February. When winter hits, the moisture input to streams reaches its lowest point. This year streams may be dependant on an infusion of water stored in reservoirs.

There is 2,800 acre-feet of storage at the headwaters of the Eagle and Gore Creeks. An acre-foot will roughly cover a football field a foot deep. A total of about 1,100 acre-feet of that is used for snowmaking on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains.

In autumn, after the peak water demand of summer, the flows of most rivers tend to recover because irrigation diversion is curtailed. But without additional moisture, things could continue to dry out.

Compounding the issue is the need for snowmaking and the need to maintain some semblance of normal flows in rivers. Weaver projected the Eagle at Avon could hit 15 cfs this winter if current trends continue.

Long term drier?

While it is difficult to forecast what the weather will do, the United States Geological Survey is predicting the next decade or two are likely to be drier than normal. The prediction is based on long-term historical data for the Colorado Plateau, which encompasses Eagle County.

“Recent trends in Colorado Plateau precipitation … suggests that climate of the region may become drier for the next two to three decades in a pattern that could resemble the drought of 1942-1977,” the report states.

It all depends on a warm current in the Pacific that seems to govern precipitation here.

If El Nino is strong, we’ll be wet.


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