Anyone residing in Southwest Colorado knows what a precious commodity water is, and worry over drought is a constant in our collective consciousness. The lack of rain this summer has been of special concern given our mild winter, and even with the recent rains the situation is not good.
The United States Drought Monitor shows our area is experiencing D4, exceptional drought conditions, and last Friday’s front page story in The Journal announced “Southwest Colorado headed for the second lowest water year in history” — in history! This really comes as no surprise to any of us who have tracked the water level at McPhee Reservoir or visited our neighbor to the east and seen the state of the Animas River. The drought is regional, affecting not only Montezuma County but other communities in the area as well.
Recently, the city of Cortez hosted researchers from Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado Boulder campus, who presented a “Vulnerability, Consequences, and Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) workshop. The program is a university-community partnership designed to help municipalities identify weather hazards and the impact of those hazards on the community, with the goal of developing strategic short- and long-term plans to mitigate the effects of long-term drought and changing weather conditions. A report on the findings of the Cortez workshop will be forwarded to the city by January and will be available for public review.
I was one of ten participants in the two half-day workshops, and I can tell you it was a sobering experience. Changing weather patterns are resulting in higher temperatures with longer fire seasons. Reduced snowpack last winter and minimal rain this spring and summer have left reservoirs that once stored water that could be tapped during drier years at dangerously low levels.
McPhee Reservoir is almost 62 feet below full elevation; Lake Powell almost 108 feet below. Lake Mead is at a critical low of 1078.41 feet which is over 141 feet below full elevation. When the lake reaches 1075 feet, lower basin states will be required to reduce withdrawals, and at 1050 feet hydro power production will be stopped. It will take years to replenish these reservoirs, and yet our need for the water they store is neverending, so . . . what to do?
While city water rights are sufficient to continue to meet community needs, it’s important to understand that the water supply doesn’t stop at the city limits. Everyone who gets their water from McPhee — folks who reside in our city and surrounding towns, farmers and ranchers, Towaoc residents — will be impacted as water becomes less plentiful. Consequently, every citizen in the city, the county, indeed the region, will need to reevaluate water use and become more conscious of this most valuable resource.
The time for a comprehensive approach to water conservation is now, and the city has taken steps to begin the process. On August 28, the City Council approved a Water Conservation Plan which is available for citizen review and input on the city website, cityofcortez.com. The plan is presented in nine parts which include an existing water system profile, current water use and demand, water saving measures and programs, proposed facility improvements and an implementation plan highlighting the role of conservation in planning for the city’s water supply.
The 18th century British physician Thomas Fuller said, “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” The well isn’t dry yet, but “conservation” has become our new “Word of the Day.”
The goal of the city is to continue to provide safe, high-quality drinking water at a reasonable price while emphasizing ways to conserve. In the coming months we’ll be sharing information on rebate programs to make it easier to invest in water saving devices, water conservation workshops, landscaping workshops to teach home and business owners how to maintain curb appeal while saving water, demonstration xeriscaping plots, and updates on ways the city is practicing what we’re preaching.
I’m inviting everyone to come together to work on this issue and participate in the solution. Together we can become more responsible consumers of this priceless resource and wisely use what we have.
Karen Sheek is the mayor of Cortez, a position elected by council members. She was reelected to city council in 2016 and elected mayor for a third term in 2018. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org