Residents in rural La Plata County are feeling the pinch of Durango’s decision to cut off new customers at its water dock.
“The urban communities that have water docks, in my opinion, have a community obligation to work with the folks in need of water,” said Ed Zink, a rancher in the Animas Valley. “Water is an absolute basic need, and to be short on water is a very scary thing.”
In May, the city of Durango announced it would not accept any new customers at its water dock on the south end of town.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said if the city took on more customers during this record drought year, it might force the city to enact water restrictions for residents.
“We’re evaluating the situation with our water supply, and as soon as we’re able, we will allow new people to purchase a card,” LeBlanc said Wednesday.
But La Plata County residents saw the move as a slight.
The entire city of Durango uses about 3.2 million to 3.9 million gallons of water a day. By contrast, the current 1,220 or so water dock customers use only about 3.8 million gallons of water a year.
“When I go into town, I have to cringe when I see people washing their driveways down and doing things that aren’t really a logical use of the water in this area,” said Barb McCall, who lives near Kline.
Residents on the western side of the county, especially, have been put in a tough place, McCall said. Locally known as the “Dryside,” access to water has always been an issue for homeowners there, but it has reached new heights this year.
People who need water have been forced to travel as far as Farmington or Bayfield, about a two-hour round-trip. The endeavor is expensive and time-consuming.
And, with the unprecedented drought, more wells that typically have water are running dry. That’s created a new group of people that never before needed the Durango water dock.
“We are in a desperate situation,” McCall said. “We are not the rich side of the county, and it’s a situation where people can’t afford the high prices for water, but they have to have it.”
Pat Greer, a longtime rancher, said recent rains are welcome, but they haven’t done anything to significantly reverse the drought. He said most of his neighbors are having trouble getting water.
“It’s scary,” Greer said. “It was bad when (the city) cut them off from getting water in Durango. If we don’t get some more rain, I think everyone out here will be hauling water from somewhere. From where, I don’t know.”
A spring near the dispersed community of Marvel has been consistently flowing because of a good water year in 2017, but there’s no telling how long that water will last, Greer said.
“A lot of people depend on this water,” said Stephen Aragon, who was filling a tank Wednesday.
Zink said he’s heard of people going as far as pulling water out of irrigation ditches and using it for domestic purposes – which can be unsafe.
“We spent 200 years trying to improve water quality,” Zink said, “and now we’re going backwards from a concept of public health and safety.”
LeBlanc said the city has an obligation to provide water to people within its service area. The city has tried to help residents in the outlying parts of the county, he said, but there is a limit to what the city can do.
“I don’t think it’s justified,” LeBlanc said of the criticism. “When you make a decision to buy a house that doesn’t have reliable water, that’s a decision that you make.”
The city of Durango’s primary source for water is the Florida River. When needed, the city supplements water to its reservoir from the Animas River. Both rivers are flowing at record lows because of low snowpack over the winter.
And, recent mudslides and runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar have cut off the city’s ability to pump Animas River water.
The city of Durango hasn’t implemented wide-ranging water restrictions, but it has asked its top 20 water users to cut back. LeBlanc said those users have reduced water consumption about 10 percent, saving an estimated 1 million gallons a day.
“I’m sorry some folks are upset,” he said. “But we just can’t provide water to everybody in the world. Our business is to manage within our water service area, and we’re doing the best we can.”
Efforts to bring water to the west side of the county have been in the works for decades. Just recently, a pipeline from Lake Nighthorse pumped water to Lake Durango, a milestone for larger plans to divert water to the area.
But until that time comes, western La Plata County residents must find water where they can.
Chris LeMay, Bayfield’s town manager, said the town’s water dock is still open to the public. He said use of the water dock is up 35 percent from a typical year.
“I’m not saying the crisis is over, but it seems to be averted for the time being with recent rainfall,” LeMay said.
Other water docks in the area are located in Oxford and Ignacio. Attempts to reach La Plata Archuleta Water District, which operates the Oxford dock, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, which operates the Ignacio dock, declined to comment.
Zink said he has heard the La Plata Archuleta Water District is hoping to add a second water dock. And, that La Plata West Water Authority is hoping to get a water dock out near the west side of the county.
Calls to the district were not returned this week.
“It’s really good people and organizations are looking to improve that,” Zink said. “But there are people that have needs today.”