Ask Eartha: Is drought the new normal for the Mountain West? | SummitDaily.com

Ask Eartha: Is drought the new normal for the Mountain West?

Eartha Steward
Guest column

Lower than average water levels at Lake Dillon Friday, July 6, near Frisco.

Dear Eartha,

It's been a hot and dry start to summer. Why aren't we hearing about local water-use restrictions? — Miranda, Silverthorne

Miranda, thank you for your question! As I sit and write to you, there's a brief pause in the steady rain that's fallen for the last several hours. Even though it's keeping me indoors, the rain is a welcome reprieve from the abnormally dry weather we've been having. And that's not my lingo – that's how the U.S drought monitor classifies the current status in our area of the state. And while we're abnormally dry, the situation could be a lot worse. Southwestern Colorado is experiencing what's called "exceptional drought." Across the state, abnormal dryness and various stages of drought are affecting nearly 50 percent of the population. The Denver Post reports that this is the driest it's been since 2002. This year's runoff from the Rockies on down to Lake Powell is anticipated to be only 42 percent of the long-term average. Reservoirs across the Colorado River Basin are expected to be less than half full by fall.

We know that much of the basin is dry by nature; Summit County's greenery is deceiving because we don't really live in a moisture-rich environment. But in the past few decades prolonged drought has become so commonplace in Colorado that researchers for the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado think we need a new word for drought. Why? Because drought indicates a temporary situation, and yet trends and projections both show that for the foreseeable future, our climate is going to become more arid. What word do we use to replace drought? Aridification. Wonky, sure, but this word describes the process of becoming more arid, which is exactly what climate change is doing across the West. Aridification has long-term consequences, and the goal is to change our mindset – and therefore our actions – so that we appropriately deal with the hotter and drier future that is here now.

So, why aren't we facing water restrictions in the face of the drought and our more-arid future? Well, for the time being, we're still okay. There's plenty of water to go around for Colorado municipalities, even as the population grows. This is because most of the water consumption in the state isn't used for drinking water; it's used for agriculture. The more pressing question becomes how farmers will survive in the future as pressure increases on municipalities to sell the water allocated for agriculture to cities instead.

That said, several localities do have water restrictions that enter into effect every summer. Most of the time, these rules deal with outdoor water use. Locally, the Town of Breckenridge restricts outdoor irrigation to specific days of the week depending on system-type and neighborhood. The Town of Frisco has similar restrictions, although they're voluntary. However, mandatory restrictions kick-in once the flow of Ten Mile Creek gets below a specified level.

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Even if we're not facing mandatory conservation, there are a number of actions we can all take to reduce our water consumption at home. This year, if you are a resident or business connected to municipal water in Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon, Silverthorne, or Copper Mountain, you can sign up for a free outdoor water inspection. You'll be visited by a Resource Central technician who will complete an inspection of your sprinkler system and give you a list of suggestions to reduce water use and runoff at your property. Visit your town's website for more information and to sign-up. In addition to the sprinkler inspection, consider planting native and drought resistant plants outside. While a grassy lawn might be the American standard, those lush green grasses haven't evolved to thrive in our arid environment. If you need to re-landscape or are starting from scratch, look into xeriscaping instead.

Indoors, you can swap out your existing faucets with more efficient ones, get a high-efficiency showerhead, and check your toilet for leaks. Limit your showers, use cooking water or rinse water for plants, and think about getting a high efficiency washing machine. Denver Water has a long list of useful tips on its website.

We know that climate change is going to bring us a hotter and drier future, and with the drought and the fires blazing across the state, this summer could be the start of our new normal. It's not too late to take action, though. In fact, we'll all be better off by planning ahead and conserving water now before the situation becomes truly dire. So as we enter into the monsoon season, let's all be thankful for the water we receive, and mindful of the water we use.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at info@highcountryconservation.org.