Mother Nature has delivered...

But drought still lingers
The Colorado Statesman

The frequent and heavy snowfall this month has flummoxed meteorologists, left drivers cursing and put broad smiles on the faces of the folks at Denver Water.

When officials at the state’s largest water utility declared a Stage 2 Drought and put in place the harshest watering restrictions in over a decade at the beginning of April, they mentioned that another seven or so feet of snow might help — and that’s nearly what Mother Nature has delivered. There’s even time left for more fresh powder, though none was in the forecast at press time.

But don’t break out the champagne or crack open the sprinkler just yet. In the complex metrics that govern water availability in the high desert, a snowpack approaching historic averages isn’t enough to overcome what everyone agrees is the persistent and longstanding drought afflicting the region.

“We don’t have all of the answers yet. It’s still too early in the season,” said Denver Water’s Chris Piper, a government relations specialist, at a presentation to constituents of state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, on Tuesday.

Denver Water, which gets about half its water from the South Platte River Basin east of the Continental Divide and the other half from the Colorado River Basin on the Western Slope, has to consider more than simply snowpack when it determines the year’s water supply, Piper told the crowd of about 50 at the Washington Street Community Center in Denver.

“By the end of May,” Piper said, “we’ll be able to determine whether we’re going to have to stick with the plan and stay at Drought Stage 2, or whether things have gotten better enough we can do something different.”

Until then, customers — 1.3 million of them, including residents and businesses in Denver and 14 surrounding municipalities — can’t water with sprinklers between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and then only on two designated days per week. Additional restrictions include: Motorists have to use a bucket to wash their cars (commercial carwashes that meet certain water standards can still operate), restaurants aren’t supposed to serve water unless it’s requested, and hotels “shall not” change sheets more often than every four days for lodgers staying more than one night.

There are plenty of fine points to the restrictions, such as allowing daily, hand-held watering for vegetable and flower gardens, which are available at www.denverwater.org. But the primary message is clear: The utility’s slogan, in ubiquitous use since the last major drought in 2002, has been “Use Only What You Need.” This year, it comes with an addendum: “Use Even Less.”

Many of the state’s other largest water providers, including the Aurora and Colorado Springs water systems, put similar restrictions in place at the beginning of April.

How is it, though, that unanticipated snowfall measured in feet hasn’t turned things around?

For one thing, Piper said, while the South Platte and Colorado basins’ accumulated snow depth might be above historic averages, the measures for Denver’s watersheds — the portions of the basins where Denver Water draws its supply — are still lagging. As of this week, it stands at about 78 percent for the South Platte and 87 percent for the Colorado.

Again, great news, but not the whole story.

Looking back two winters ago, Colorado had a “gangbusters” snow year, leaving reservoirs above historic averages, Piper explained. So the last year’s unusually dry winter raised concerns — occasioning a Stage 1 Drought, with voluntary watering restrictions — there was still plenty of water on hand. But after another year of below-average snowfall, there hasn’t been nearly enough moisture dropped on the state to replenish the low reservoirs.

“We can’t just look at one year, we have to look at the next year and the next year,” Piper said. “The good news is, with all of the moisture that we’ve been receiving, you shouldn’t have to water your lawns. Then after that, the soil moisture should be good enough that two-day-a-week watering should be enough.”

In addition, Denver Water will be monitoring closely in coming weeks as spring temperatures start the annual snowmelt in order to determine how much should wind up in the reservoirs — it can vary year-to-year depending on how dry the ground is and other factors. “Snowpack evaporates, it melts and soaks into the groundwater table, and some of it goes into streams,” he said.

About half the country — from the Gulf Coast through the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West — has been enduring a drought of epic proportions for nearly two years, he said, displaying a color-coded map that illustrated the ongoing severity. While there are signs the drought might be easing for Colorado over the next year or two, he cautioned, it looks like it’s moving to the west, which could have implications for downstream states that also rely on Colorado River water.

It’s all part of the multi-dimensional puzzle of interlocking parts that matches a drop of water that falls somewhere in Colorado with a faucet somewhere else in the state.

Denver Water is looking to expand its use of recycling water — minimally treating some runoff and then making it available for uses such as irrigating parks, filling some exhibits at the Denver Zoo, along with limited industrial uses — but even that requires what Piper called “a giant spreadsheet somewhere” to account for which drops come from where. Because of longstanding water rights agreements, Denver can only use its South Platte water once — “once it’s down the drain, it’s gone,” Piper said — but can use its Colorado River water as many times as it wants.

“We account for every drop, and the percentage of water that comes from the Western Slope is ours to use. If we can catch it, we can use it over and over and over again before it’s gone,” he said.

The program is more complex than simply piping water from drains to parks, though. One project involves diverting recycled water into gravel pits along the South Platte and storing it there until it has to be released to keep the balance sheet steady when water is required elsewhere, for instance.

The utility is supporting a bill in the legislature this session that would allow customers to reuse “graywater” — the water that goes down the drain after a shower or doing laundry — for non-potable uses. House Bill 1044, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, which is making its way through the Senate after House approval, would authorize the use of graywater, a practice that’s legal in every other western state.

“Although the water savings will be small, especially at first, it’ll be a good first step, and it’ll invigorate some innovation on the issue, so hopefully we can get some systems that are more cost-effective,” Piper said. He added that most of the water savings with graywater will be found in new housing, where the diversion system is built into the plumbing from the start. (The cost of retrofitting an older home with the required pipes, holding tanks and pumps could top $30,000, making it “kind of a luxury for some people,” he smiled.)

Denver Water is also spearheading conservation programs — the utility invented the concept of Xeriscaping and maintains demonstration gardens to show it’s not all yucca and gravel — and has found that water-wise habits formed by the 2002 drought made customers eager to use less.

“We asked customers to conserve,” Piper said, “and when the (2002) drought ended, we saw what we call the drought shadow.” During the dry year just over a decade ago, water use dropped by 30 percent, but even after restrictions were lifted, usage was still down by 20 percent.

“We have seen our customers’ habits change because of the drought,” he said, boding well for a goal Denver Water has set to reduce per capita use by another 22 percent by 2016. Among the tools available, he said, are rebates for more efficient washing machines and other appliances, and advice on how to reduce or replace irrigated lawns.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com