By Caitlin Switzer
REGIONAL—With temperatures dropping and hopes rising for abundant winter snow- fall, it can be all too easy to forget some of the lessons learned during a summer of drought. However, Colorado continues to be categorized as undergoing moderate to exceptional drought statewide, according to the United States drought monitor map. Current combined storage levels in the eight reservoirs that make up the Gunnison River Basin are well below last year, at roughly 557,800 acre-feet, according to NRCS reports. And with the ever present threat of new trans-mountain diversions to satisfy thirsty communities in California and on the Front Range, being water-wise in Western Colorado only makes sense.
For Project 7 Water Authority Manager Adam Turner, it’s personal. The Project 7 Water Authority is a cooperative effort among seven water entities, established in 1977, to provide high quality potable water to the municipalities and rural areas of the Uncompahgre River Valley.
“I grew up in the San Luis Valley,” Turner said. “It’s a great place for agriculture, but without enough water they are actively taking land out of production there today— and there really is nothing to take its place.
“If we learned nothing else from the drought of 2002, it is that water is a pre- cious, renewable resource that we may not have in the wild abundance that we once had,” Turner said.
As a state, Colorado ranks fifth in the nation for per capita off-stream water con- sumption (which includes agricultural us- es), with domestic consumers using an average of 208 gallons per day compared to 179 gallons per day nationwide, accord- ing to data compiled by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). And while the state demographer predicts that most of the 1.7 million new residents expected to ar- rive in Colorado by 2020 will be crowded into Front Range communities, the growth rates in percentage terms on the Western Slope will actually be higher. Over the next two decades, municipal water de- mands could grow by as much 250,000 acre-feet per year, according to the Univer- sity of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center. An acre-foot is the amount of wa- ter required to cover an acre of ground one foot deep.
“We try to provide education through our water-wise program, and by supporting the fourth grade water festival that the Shavano Conservation District puts on
every year,” Turner said. “Our per capita use here is around 160 gallons per day, which stacks up pretty well until you con- sider that that number does not account for people pumping from a ditch. All ditch water should go through a head gate or measuring device, but there is no benefit to not pumping as much as you want to.”
While Project 7 has not undertaken a community awareness campaign on the level of the Grand Valley DRIP (Drought Response Information Project), which has done community outreach through public relations and signs placed in outdoor spac- es, “we are taking little steps,” Turner said.
“We want people to use water correctly,” he said. “California is holding a gun to our head, and Denver is clamoring like a 500- lb gorilla. Last year we sent 12.5 million acre-feet down the river—any more trans- mountain diversions will really put us in a tight spot.”
With around half of all summer water deliveries going to landscape irrigation according to the Natural Resources Law Center, homeowners can learn and save money by planting drought-tolerant lawns and ending wasteful practices.
Landscape Management specialist Chris Clemens of Planet Earth Landscape Ser- vices believes that local municipalities should offer rebates to water customers who choose to make their sprinkler sys- tems more efficient with improved nozzles and controllers.
“There are nozzles that use one-third less water, and can be swapped for the old ones,” Clemens said. “They can be expen- sive, but it is a long term investment, and will save money on your water bill in one or two seasons.
“Water is our most precious resource,” he said, “and we should be able to account for every drop.”
When planting season rolls around again next spring, the Colorado State University Extension can help interested consumers choose a drought-tolerant grass seed. Inter- estingly, the most commonly used turf grass in Colorado, the oft-vilified Ken- tucky Bluegrass, has actually proven to be far more drought tolerant than previously thought and is often the most practical se- lection.