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Colorado Water Utilities Bracing for Prolonged Drought

The drought-plagued San Luis Valley in southern Colorado
Photo by Kirk Siegler
The drought-plagued San Luis Valley in southern Colorado

Climatologists at Colorado State University are warning that 98% of the state is under drought conditions. This poses all kinds of concerns for the state’s recreation economy, and for water managers, whose job it is to secure water for five million people in a mostly arid state.

As a result, some water utilities are already considering restrictions.

The ‘D’ Word

There’s a good view of the snow and sleet blanketing the Front Range today from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the corner of Jim Lochhead’s office.  

“Despite what we’re seeing outside my window of a little snowfall which is most welcome, rest assured we’re very concerned about the conditions, and we are in a drought,” said Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water.

As head of the largest water utility in the state, it’s Lochhead’s job to ensure that water from melting snow keeps making its way to the taps of 1.3 million customers - even in a drought - and even when the average snowpack levels statewide are about half where they should be.  

“We’re also just coming off of a fire, and so we have a sense of what’s ahead of us,” said Lochhead, referring to the Lower North Fork Fire that sparked last week southwest of Denver.      

Water Restrictions Looming

Lochhead said his agency and its regional counterparts that make up the Front Range Water Council have yet to implement restrictions on water use.  But that could change in the coming weeks. The main reason they haven’t already is because the last two years were wet and snowy.

“Our storages reservoirs are our savings account in Colorado,” said Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern Waterin Berthoud, the second largest water utility in the state and a member of the Council.  

Werner said Northern’s reservoirs are still about 25% above average, though like Lochhead, he’s worried about the long-term forecast.

“We are in relatively good shape going into 2012, especially in comparison to 2002-2003 when we had the same kinds of numbers in terms of snowpack, but we didn’t have the same amounts of storage,” Werner said.

Filling the Buckets

Werner said the 2002 drought underscored the need for western water agencies like his to increase conservation, but also build more storage, or ‘buckets’ as he likes to call them, for dry years like this.  

Both Northern and Denver Water are entirely dependent on snow melt and the Colorado River.  And both are asking federal regulators to approve plans to increase the amount of water they can pump and pipe from that western slope basin.  

It’s a plan that’s raised the hackles of conservation and river groups.  

But even if it is approved, it wouldn’t happen for another decade.  So for now, Jim Lochhead said he can only feel fortunate that, like Northern, Denver Water’s reservoirs are mostly full.  

“But we’re also reluctant to roll the dice on what might happen in 2013, so we really don’t want to spend our savings account and waste it,” Lochhead said.  

Lochhead said the biggest concern is the northern part of the agency’s collection system that feeds cities like Broomfield and Lafayette.  It nearly ran out of water in 2002, and there’s a huge concern that could happen again if the current conditions persist.

“We want to use it wisely so we can manage through what might be a multiple year drought,” Lochhead said.  

State climatologists haven’t looked that far ahead.  But they say there’s a high probability that the coming months will be hotter and drier than normal.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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