Creating a new water normal in mountain towns

Monsoonal rains no doubt helped this yard in Aspen achieve verdancy  last August, but the city water utility has also taken measures to encourage more conservative use of water. Photo/Allen Best

Monsoonal rains no doubt helped this yard in Aspen achieve verdancy last August, but the city water utility has also taken measures to encourage more conservative use of water. Photo/Allen Best


Why mountain towns are getting more  serious about water conservation

 ‘We have to walk the talk,’ says Breckenridge of conservation

by Allen Best

It’s been a good year for snow in the Rockies, and Breckenridge has a very strong portfolio of water rights. Normally, town residents would be able to water lawns seven days a week.

Maybe not this year. The town council is considering legislation that would cap outdoor use at three days a week. It’s part of an effort to put a new emphasis on water conservation and efficiency, says Tim Gagen, the town manager.

“We have to walk the talk,” says Gagen. “We can’t just sit up here and say we have all the water, now we’ll use it.”

Breckenridge is not alone. Other mountains towns in Colorado are devoting more attention to water conservation and efficiency. A coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley is assembling plans for public outreach to elevate water efficiency. The Vail-based Eagle River  Water and Sanitation District began crimping water use in 2003. Aspen’s water-efficiency measures go back even further, to the 1990s.

Colorado altogether is talking more about efficiency and conservation. In Denver, three separate bills were introduced into the Colorado Legislature this winter. One arriving on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk would require that beginning in September 2016 only those toilets certified under the federal government’s WaterSense program be sold in Colorado—and not just in cities. (See related story about water-efficient fixtures). 

These new initiatives to encourage efficiency and conservation converge around a growing appreciation of limits to water availability. Despite being the headwaters for several major rivers, Colorado’s water is almost entirely allocated. If Colorado’s current population of 5.2 million people grows to 10 million by mid-century, where will the needed extra water come from?

The Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs during autumn. Photo/Allen Best.

The Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs during autumn. Photo/Allen Best.

Colorado’s Front Range cities, where 85 percent of state residents live, have become more efficient with existing supplies. But they have also expanded supplies in recent decades by buying farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys for their water rights, and allowing the farms to then dry up. They have also purchased mountain ranches in such buy-and-dry transactions.

Front Range water providers also want to retain the option of going to the Colorado River and its tributaries for one final, big diversion. Western Slope water leaders urge caution. But to have credibility, leaders in the mountain valleys realize they first must put their own houses in order.

“The Western Slope needs to be goosed,” says Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Frankly, the Front Range has led most of the water-conservation efforts in Colorado to date.”

Why it matters in Breck

Gagen says that Breckenridge has been nibbling at water conservation efforts for several years. Leaking segments of existing pipes, which can cause loss of 8 to 15 percent of all the municipal water supply, are being replaced. Sprinklers in parks are being changed out in favor of more efficient devices. And the town is now looking at narrowing irrigation at its golf course to avoid watering of the roughs.

Breckenridge, in its municipal operation, has also adopted more xeriscaping, using plants that don’t require irrigation, reducing irrigation of remaining turf, and, in some cases, installing artificial turf.

Still on the agenda is elevating rates for high-consumption users. The average water bill in Breckenridge is just $35 every two months, not much more than dinner at one of the town’s higher-end restaurants. As such, most people probably pay little, if any attention, to the idea of conserving water in order to reduce their costs. They just write the check, says Gagen.

Tim Gagen

Tim Gagen

While Breckenridge has broad goals of improved sustainability, Gagen says the plan to reduce outdoor lawn irrigation to three days a week was pushed by two council members who have been persuaded by books they’ve read: “Blue Revolution,” by Cynthia Barnett (2011), “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner (1986), and “Getting Green Done,” by Auden Schendler (2011).

“They’re pretty passionate about it, but the rest of the council is on board,” says Gagen. Further, he says, the council expects no substantial pushback, based on early outreach efforts and success of restrictions in drought years.

In Vail and the upper Eagle Valley, outdoor use since 2005 has been restricted to three days a week, before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.—the same as in Denver.

Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has achieved a 20 percent per capita reduction in use, according to Diane Johnson, communications director. That’s in line with the reduction in water use since 2000 by Denver Water’s 1.3 million direct and indirect customers.

However, Eagle River has not pushed indoor water savings. Because 95 percent of indoor water is treated and released into the Eagle River, explains Johnson, the impact is small on the valley’s creeks and rivers. This compares with just 15 to 40 percent of water returned to streams after outdoor irrigation. Given limited resources for messaging, the better return is to hammer home the message of reduced outdoor use.

“What we really try to work with local people to understand is that their outdoor use affects how much water is in the rivers,” says Johnson. “If you are using water indoors, save yourself some money and be efficient, but most of that water comes back to the treatment plant and returns to the river.”

(This story is from the May 1, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News.  Subscriptions are $45 annually, payable by check or through the PayPal site in the top, right-hand column).

Other motives in Vail

In adopting its regulations on outdoor lawn watering, Eagle River Water was motivated by the searing drought of 2002. But laws also provide incentives. When seeking permits for new or expanded reservoirs, county regulations ask about “efficient use” of existing resources. State and federal regulations approach it with different wording, but essentially the same intent. “Efficient use of resource is going to be a consideration in any of those permitting processes,” says Johnson.

Gore Creek rushed and gushed through Vail in June 2011, a banner year for snow. Photo/Allen Best

Gore Creek rushed and gushed through Vail in June 2011, a banner year for snow. Photo/Allen Best

Eagle River Water has also adopted tiered rates, charging higher rates per 1,000 gallons as consumers step up consumption. But what do you do about those pockets of consumers for whom money is no deterrent?

That’s an issue in the Vail Valley that water officials are starting to wrestle with. Aspen recognized years ago that price was no object to some homeowners—and charges nosebleed rates.

Aspen’s municipal utility, which delivers both electricity and water, uses the income from high-use water customers to pay for front-end renewable energy programs and demand-side energy efficiency, says Phil Overeynder, the former utilities director and now the utilities engineer for special projects.

Aspen in the early 1990s approached the forked paths of water use. But instead of continuing to build capacity for existing water demands, the city instead reined in use. Last year, Aspen used the same amount of water as it did in 1966, despite having three times as many residents. (See more detailed story).

Now, an effort has been launched to frame a broad water efficiency strategy for the Roaring Fork Valley. The seed was planted in 2010 by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, a non-profit founded in the mid-1990s. The effort has several motives—including energy.

Formation of the group was at least partly influenced by the writings of Amory Lovins, a resident of the area, who for decades talked about “negawatts”—the idea that efficiency in energy was as good as new supply. The group he co-founded, Rocky Mountain Institute, further applied this idea of a soft path to water efficiency.

CORE’s Jason Haber explains that saving water also saves energy in several ways. Developing water resources requires energy, but it also takes energy to pump water. Energy is also embedded in treatment of sewage, he points out. Typically, water and sewage are the largest components of any municipality’s energy budget.

Fields of the Crystal River Valley were verdant last August after rains, with Mt. Sopris towering in the background. Photo/Allen Best

Fields of the Crystal River Valley were verdant last August after rains, with Mt. Sopris towering in the background. Photo/Allen Best

A bit of apple pie

Both drought and Colorado water politics also drive the effort, says Mark Fuller, executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, an umbrella organization for local water agencies.

“In large part there’s a broad recognition that water is a finite resource, and that it’s not to be wasted,” says Fuller. “There’s a little bit of motherhood and apple pie, but as we’ve experienced drought in 2012 and 2013, it has become real plain that we can’t just sort of use water as though it was never ending and constantly replenishing. It just doesn’t. There has been a lot of publicity locally about the effects of climate change on such things as snowmelt, and there’s a high level of awareness here in terms of resources.”

The program is also motivated by avoidance of infrastructure costs. “Aspen had sort of an epiphany about that years ago,” says Fuller. “Even though their population has grown, their water treatment plant is producing as much as it did 25 years ago.”

The Roaring Fork Valley also has a broader perspective within the evolving matrix of Colorado water politics.

“If we recognize that conservation is going to be a major element of addressing Colorado’s future water needs, we have to demonstrate that we are walking that talk.”

He sees greater conservation in both cities and on farms. Aspen-area communities can’t send that message without having their own house in order.

“We can’t be making those kinds of suggestions without demonstrating that we are committed as we want other people to be.”

Whether Colorado truly has any water to develop on the Western Slope is debatable—and has been debated frequently in state-wide water forums. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has suggested that major new diversions would be risky, simply because of the lack of certainty of legally entitled water in future years. Colorado’s use of the river that bears its name is tightly capped by two inter-state water compacts and one international treaty.

Fuller says that 40 percent of water in the Roaring Fork drainage is diverted across the Continental Divide, on the same level of impact as diversions from Grand and Summit counties. Despite this uncertainty about Colorado River supplies, expanded diversions are conceivable through the Fryingpan-Arkansas and Twin Lakes projects.

“I think the threat of diversions out of this watershed is in the back of everybody’s minds,” he says.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, has provided $93,000 for the Roaring Fork study, supplemented by $31,179 from four local water providers. Part of that money will go to a Denver-based consultancy, Headwaters, which is doing the analysis of how to structure an efficiency program.

Learning from elsewhere

The program is getting help from four master’s program students from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment who will do case studies of six existing regional water conservation programs from the West.

Those areas are:

Santa Fe County, New Mexico

Verde River, Arizona

Blackfoot River, Montana

Deschutes River, Oregon

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Grand Valley, Colorado

Emma Maack, one of the master’s students, said the case studies show that “it’s really possible to be successful in pursuing water conservation on a regional scale, even though it’s fairly complicated.” One take-away, however, is that “process really does matter, both in the creation of the plan and in its implementation. Don’t assume it will get implemented by itself.”

Nor will one manual work for all regions seeking to implement water-conservation strategies. “Each region has its own process and its own situation,” says Maack. Plus, water laws vary from state to state, with different impacts.

How useful are per-capita water-use figures?

How good are per-capita numbers?

The argument is made in many places, both mountains and cities, that per-capita is not a particularly useful indicator, because circumstances vary so widely. Ski towns can quadruple in population. Their visitors are not residents, but their use is reflected in water counts.

But a place like Castle Rock has a much hotter climate than Vail or Aspen and a longer growing season. But what is the alternative to per-capita measuring sticks, asks Lane Wyatt, who runs the Water Quality and Quantity program at the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Really, there is no uniformly accepted yardstick.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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