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Eagle River Watershed Council: A local look at drought

James Dilzell
The Current
The Eagle River, pictured here after a boost of snow, saw flows at 40% below normal as the water year 2020 came to an end — reminding the community of drought and our lack of a monsoon season.

About this time last year, I wrote an article that focused on the feast of a winter we had in 2019, which followed the famine of winter 2018. The Eagle River flows had been high, and there were no local drought conditions through most of the summer. However, proving volatility correct, we have shifted back to a famine this water year having sunk into exceptional drought.

At the start of April 2020, when snowpack typically peaks, we were feeling hopeful looking ahead. Snowpack was sitting at 104% of average and we still had time for more storms.

Then, the taps turned off — leading to one of the driest springs on record. Precipitation levels hovered around 50% of average through the rest of the summer. Our late summer monsoons never came, temperatures were high and wind was fierce — drying out our soils and lessening river flows to a trickle.

The new water year that began October 1 started with a precipitation deficit. Totals for the Colorado River Basin were at just 23% of average.

The entirety of Colorado was (and still is) in drought of some form, and much of Eagle County is in exceptional drought — the highest on the drought intensity scale. Presumed impacts, such as widespread crop and pasture losses and water shortages resulting in water emergencies, accompany this drought status, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Locally, we see the impacts of drought through low flows on the Eagle River, struggling foliage, a whole lot of dusty trails and wildfires, like that in Grizzly Creek. One impact that we don’t often think about is how drought affects both water supply and demand.

Rivers and creeks are the primary supply of water that is treated for human consumption in Eagle County. When river flows are low — like this year when the Eagle River was about 60% of average — the system becomes strained.

At the same time, demand increases, as folks try to keep their lawns and landscaping green without the help of precipitation.

Our local drinking water providers try to stay ahead of drought, for example Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the water provider for the town of Vail through Edwards, “plans ahead to maintain a diversified supply of both ground and surface water.” Further, the district maintains “both in-basin and out-of-basin storage sources” to satisfy their water rights obligations.

With western climate experiencing dry patterns more and more, it’s seeming that drought is becoming the new normal, along with an increase in weather pattern variability. Len Wright, with ERWSD, says that, “the common way to think about this is an increase in blizzards, floods and droughts. While that may over-simplify, it drives home the idea that it will be hard to discern climate change on the day-to-day or month-to-month observed weather.”

Though we can’t change weather patterns to give the West more snow or rain, there are things we can do locally and individually to help reduce the effects of drought — leaving more water in the river and reducing strain on the system.

The Climate Action Collaborative, managed by Kim Schlaepfer, has recently created a Water Working Group, which Eagle River Watershed Council helps to coordinate. The group explores solutions for reducing water use in the Eagle River Valley. The Collaborative began as a group working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but has recognized that water quantity is key to resiliency and that the treatment of water has a direct energy consumption impact.

“If you have outdoor irrigation — get an irrigation audit by a certified irrigation professional,” Schlaepfer says. “Make sure that you are not over-watering your plants, you aren’t watering the sidewalk and you aren’t watering when it’s raining.”

And if you want to go one step further, think about altering your landscaping to native, drought-tolerant species. These plants are better suited to our drier climate and can more easily survive with our precipitation levels.

James Dilzell is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org with questions or to learn how to support us.


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