City pondrs another year of drought
Durango Water Commission looks at conservation measures

A tangle of driftwood lies on a rocky beach along a dry portion of the Animas River near Baker’s Bridge. With the San Juan snowpack slightly better off than it was last year at this time, local water officials are taking a closer look at measures to reduce the effects of drought, including higher water rates, rebates for low-water-usage appliances and mandatory
water restrictions./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

With the San Juan snowpack only slightly better than it was last year at this time, the Durango Water Commission has started preparing for another possible summer of drought.

“We’re cautiously looking at the next step, at the worst-case scenario,” said Commissioner Kent Ford.

According to Ford, this scenario could take many forms, from the drying-up of the Animas and Florida rivers – which constitute the city water supply – to storm runoff from the fire zones clouding that supply. While both are serious considerations, Ford said it is the latter of the two that poses the biggest threat.

“One big thunderstorm and the river turns to chocolate and the city reservoir turns to chocolate, and it’s going to be a problem,” he said.

Increased sediment in the water puts additional strain on the city’s already over-taxed water treatment plant. If the murkiness proves too much to treat, the plant must close its intake pumps on the Animas, forcing the city to rely on water from Terminal Reservoir, on the College Mesa. However, the 75 million-gallon reservoir only holds seven days’ worth of water, which makes city water officials and residents alike nervous.

However, with snowpack levels higher than those in 2002, some feel secure that the Animas has seen its lowest point, and the threat of the river running dry this summer is remote. Jack Rogers, director of Durango Public Works, said during the peak usage day last summer, the city drew 15 cfs from the Animas River and 9 cfs from the Florida. In contrast, the Animas hit a low flow of 116 cfs last summer, on Aug. 28. Nevertheless, Rogers said he is not comfortable resting on these laurels.

“I’m sure no one who lives in the community can ever remember the river going dry, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” he said.

As a result, the city is developing strategies now to deal with water shortages. Rogers said this year’s plan will differ from last year’s in that it will focus on education as well as regulation.

“We didn’t do such a good job of informing the public last year,” he said. “We sent mixed messages.”

Rogers said one message that was particularly damaging was the “use it or lose it” mentality.

“I think some of the sentiment was that if we don’t use it, it just goes to Las Vegas,” he said. “That’s probably not the best message to be sending to the public.

“We wouldn’t want our neighbors upstream treating us that way,” he continued. “And I don’t think we should be treating others that way.”

Rogers said education will consist of water-conservation tips that will be posted on the city’s website and will be included in residents’ monthly water bills. He also said the city will be releasing news releases regularly on water-conservation measures.

“We want to let people know how they can conserve water,” he said.

The city also may rely on voluntary water restrictions, where residents are asked to limit outdoor watering, and will have the added muscle of mandatory restrictions. Such restrictions, a change to city ordinances, were approved by the City Council last August. According to the new ordinance, the city manager is able to pass mandatory restrictions at a moment’s notice and fine violators. Penalties range from written warnings to $300 fines.

Rogers said he was not sure what such mandatory restrictions would entail, but he did say that given the city’s small backup water supply, they likely would be rigid.

“We don’t have a lot of storage, so we’ll have to take stringent measures,” he said. “It’s probably going to be more severe than just limiting lawn watering.”

In addition to these measures, the city also is mulling over further strategies, including incentives for residents and businesses that install low-water fixtures and appliances and penalties in the form of higher rates for excessive water users.

However, Rogers noted that implementing a three-tier rate structure – the city currently uses a two-tiered one – could be a thorny issue.

“The hard part is deciding what constitutes ‘excessive,’” he said.

Furthermore, residents are two years into a six-year rate-hike program that will help cover the cost of about $20 million in water-system upgrades, and may not be amenable to bigger water bills. At least one water commissioner expressed concern that such an increase could make residents go to extremes of stopping all outdoor watering to avoid costly water bills.

“I don’t want to do anything that makes Durango look like Farmington,” said Fred Kroeger, during the commission’s Monday meeting.

However, fellow Commissioner Chris Wilbur pointed out that relative to other municipalities in Colorado, Durango water is still a bargain.

“Water’s cheap,” he said. “It’s still cheap in Durango.”

Despite the misgivings, water commissioners seemed generally open to the idea of a three-tier rate structure as well as rebates for low-water appliances, ordering city staffers to explore the options further.

“Overall, I think we need to switch to more efficient things,” said Commissioner Bob Wolff. “I think (a third rate) is the easiest thing to do.”

And while commissioners and city officials say they are preparing for the worst, they point out that, with a few months of winter remaining and the city’s senior water rights on the river, there is no reason to sound the alarms just yet.

“The city has a reasonable amount of water,” said Ford. “On the bright side, we don’t have a reservoir that’s empty, and the Animas runs unimpaired down to us.

“Until the Animas dries up, we’re really OK.”







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