Water worries, wisdom define Summit County’s State of the River
May 10, 2013
The ability of Summit County residents to enjoy a rich outdoor lifestyle, maintain a robust tourism-based economy and sustain a healthy community depends largely on the health of area water systems.
Raft guides, ski area operators and marina managers rely on a steady flow of precipitation to move forward with their day-to-day operations; while city planners, county officials and engineers institute policies according to the availability of water.
Twenty years ago, the Summit County State of the River event was created to bring citizens, officials and community groups together in one room to explore the many facets of what comes out of our faucets.
This year, nine speakers attended the event, including a nonprofit leader, the state climatologist, a representative from the Colorado River District, utility workers and the water commissioner.
Their work runs the gamut from hands-on community-based restoration projects to the management of multi-million-dollar water systems.
• The Blue River Watershed group is working to improve water quality and quantity through outreach. At Tuesday's meeting, it highlighted projects at the Pennsylvania Mine, Swan River and Ten Mile Creek. Early mining operations, railroads, highways and poor development practices once annihilated the natural habitat in these areas, but the community group is working to bring the habitats back to what they once were.
The Swan River project will restore two miles of river that were devastated by the dredge mining that occurred in the early part of the 20th century.
"This is one of the few opportunities to restore a significant amount of habitat for Colorado's native cutthroat trout," said Blue River Watershed board member Scott Hummer.
• While nonprofits like the Blue River Watershed Group work to conserve water quality, Dillon, Silverthorne and Summit County officials are improving water systems by updating the Old Dillon Reservoir. Summit County manager Gary Martinez said that project is slated to finish in June.
• Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Green Mountain Reservoir depend on precipitation in Summit County to provide drinking water for their constituents.
Representatives from these companies discussed their strategies for conserving water in a time of drought.
Early this spring, Denver Water imposed Stage 2 drought conditions, creating water use restrictions for customers. Denver Water resources engineer Bob Steger announced at the meeting his company had hired "water cops" to impose fines for violating the rules.
"We are pushing our customers hard to save quite a bit of water," he said.
• Summit County residents should brace themselves for an increased occurrence of drought, according to State climatologist Nolan Doesken and Colorado River District general manager Eric Kuhn, who also spoke at Tuesday's meeting.
Summit County's wetter-than-average April brought the snowpack back up to near average, and should save the area from a dry and sizzling summer, Doesken said.
"Spring precipitation does matter. It dictates a fair amount of water usage," he said.
But, the climatologist warned that locals not to get too comfortable. He said a drought is developing and persisting in the West that will continue to dog Summit.
"We have had an upward trend in summer temperatures, and it's hard to deny that trend," he said.
A population boom in the Colorado River Basin is expected to compound the effects of rising temperatures, said Colorado River District manager Kuhn.
Summit County is part of a gigantic water system in the Colorado River Basin. Thirty-five million people are currently served by the Colorado River, Kuhn said, and the population is expected to grow to 80 million people.
"Supply is now less than demand," Kuhn said. "What we are surviving on is water storage."
Because of the uncertainty of the future, the discussion surrounding the long-term use of the water supply in the Colorado River Basin will only become more important, the water manager said.
• Summit County water commissioner Troy Wineland encouraged residents and stakeholders to continue the conversation about water and drought during the State of the River meeting.
He announced the creation of "Blue River Diversion," a monthly newsletter intended to educate the community about water issues.
Wineland also invited community members to continue water conversations in Summit County through drop-in discussions, titled "Water over Coffee." They are held from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Red Buffalo Coffee shop the first and third Mondays of each month.