When the Animas River reached record lows during last summer’s drought, Durango residents were allowed to water their lawns every day. That may change during the next major drought.
A drought management plan released this month recommends city residents share in the sacrifices that come along with conservation. It lays out how the city would rank severity of droughts and conservation measures that could be required, such as limiting or prohibiting outdoor irrigation and prohibiting residents from washing driveways, among other measures.
Weather and climate experts expect Colorado to become hotter and drier as the climate changes, and that means less water to go around or less reliable water, said Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director. The plan outlines internal measures the city will take during severe droughts and what will be expected from residents and businesses.
“We are being upfront about what we expect to do when drought happens,” Biggs said.
In the past during droughts, the city has operated by internal protocols and documents that were not shared with the public.
Residents could be asked to cease outdoor irrigation entirely, to stop filling outdoor pools and hot tubs, and to conserve indoor water use in the most severe droughts, according to the plan. Residents could face fines for failing to follow drought restrictions.
The drought management plan is a departure from the approach the city took last year when it asked its largest customers, such as Fort Lewis College, Hillcrest Golf Club, Durango School District 9-R and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, to conserve. But the city didn’t implement any residential watering restrictions.
Instead, it stopped accepting new customers at its water dock on the south end of town, saying opening the spigot to additional users might force the city to enact water restrictions for its residents. That infuriated some rural residents, who were especially hit hard by the drought.
“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,” Barb McCall, who lives near Kline, said at the time.
The draft plan is based on input from city staff members as well as volunteer members of a drought committee.
“Our drought committee said we should have shared sacrifice,” Biggs said.
The draft plan defines drought as both insufficient precipitation and the city’s inability to deliver water because of an infrastructure or water supply failure. An official drought would be declared by the city manager and confirmed by the Durango City Council.
The severity of a drought would be determined by snowpack, reservoir levels and other factors. The most severe drought ranking would be akin to last year or 2002, Biggs said.
In a severe drought, residents could be asked to limit their indoor water use to 30 gallons per person per day, which is on par with what most people use for necessary activities, such as bathing and cooking, he said.
“I don’t think we’re asking people for anything that is an undue hardship,” Biggs said.
The city has seen some declines in water use as rates have risen sharply since 2014, but nothing substantial, he said.
Before the rate increases, average residential use for water during June or July was about 14,000 gallons. It is now about 10,000 to 12,000 gallons, he said.
The plan also identifies steps the city can take to be prepared for a drought, including building a new water-treatment plant below Lake Nighthorse and upgrading water meters. Replacing water meters is an ongoing process.
A new plant that could treat 14 million gallons a day could cost $54.3 million. The city has also considered building a plant to treat 4 million gallons a day for $21 million, Biggs said.
The need for the new plant was demonstrated to the city in August and September 2018. The Florida River was running low, and although the city took all the water in the river, it wasn’t enough to meet demand.
The city had to draw water from the Animas River while it was full of ash runoff from the 416 Fire. So, city staff had to carefully manage water intake from the Animas and ensure the intake was cleared of debris regularly, he said.
A new water-treatment plant at Lake Nighthorse could provide an access to additional water and a backup water treatment, Biggs said.
A copy of the draft plan is available at www.DurangoGov.org/utilities.
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