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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Fort Collins Preps Residents For Possible Water Shortage This Year

 Charred trees line the Poudre River in the Cameron Peak burn scar in the river's canyon west of Fort Collins.
Luke Runyon
Charred trees line the Poudre River in the Cameron Peak burn scar in the river's canyon west of Fort Collins.

The city of Fort Collins is asking residents to use less water this spring and summer, as the city’s utilities department prepares for incoming ash and debris flows from the Cameron Peak burn scar.

As of this Thursday, the city is under a water shortage watch, which lays out a set of voluntary conservation measures. The city wants residents to limit lawn, tree and garden watering to two days a week, and not to water from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The order issuing the watch also asks for ornamental water features to be turned off, for covers to be used on community and residential pools, and for the use of misting devices to be restricted to only extremely hot days.

The order says the watch will likely be in place throughout the 2021 irrigation season, which often extends until the first snow in late fall.

Mandatory watering restrictions are possible later this year, said Fort Collins water conservation specialist Mariel Miller. The severity of those restrictions will depend on how much runoff the Poudre River sees from the Cameron Peak burn scar, and if drought conditions worsen. The city relies on a blend of water from both the Poudre River and Horsetooth Reservoir.

“We’ve already this year started to see some impacts from the Cameron Peak Fire on the Poudre,” Miller said. “This watch is really to prepare our customers and ourselves for the potential for shortage later this summer.”

A December 2020 report from the U.S. Forest Service showed that post-fire water quality issues were 90% to 100% likely to occur. “Water quality would be impacted by post-fire ash and sediment-laden runoff, nutrient loading, and potential debris flows within the first few years following the fire,” the report said. Lingering water quality problems could affect the Poudre for up to a decade, according to the report.

Fort Collins installed an early warning system after 2012’s High Park Fire to avoid ash-laden river water from clogging its treatment facility pipes. Sensors in Poudre Canyon alert utility workers when the water’s turbidity -- its cloudiness -- increases due to a heavy rainstorm triggering mudslides.

Other northern Front Range municipalities asked for voluntary conservation from residents in early April, despite the region’s heavy snows in mid-March. That list includes Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette, Northglenn, Erie, Broomfield, Westminster, Superior, Thornton, Arvada and the Left Hand Water District. The city of Boulder is currently under a drought watch.

Fort Collins enacted mandatory conservation last fall during maintenance on Horsetooth Reservoir. Residents were instructed not to do any outdoor lawn watering starting Oct. 1. The order was lifted in November 2020 when maintenance work was completed.

In April, a portion of Larimer, Boulder and Weld counties became the first area in the state to be designated as drought-free since last summer.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River and water in the western U.S., produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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