No rain, no snow, no relief 

City Sage

Discomfort, thy name is attending a meeting of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board. Board members and Utilities senior managers sit in comfortable, expensively ergonomic office chairs, while less-senior managers, media and the public squeeze into narrow rows of chairs better suited to the torture sequences of Zero Dark Thirty.

It's the perfect environment for the delivery of unpleasant, even apocalyptic news. For all the media care, it doesn't matter. Just let us out!

That may be why Utilities' January water outlook received scant attention last week. It was much more fun to watch Bryce Carter of the Sierra Club talk about Martin Drake Power Plant's emissions, or to listen to Scott Hente and Jan Martin pitch their plan for Utilities governance, than to absorb the reality-based bad news.

Droughts differ from other natural disasters (e.g., flood, fire, famine and pestilence) in that you don't know when they start, and you don't know when they end — except in retrospect. Right now, Colorado Springs is in a Stage One drought declaration. Voluntary restrictions ask customers to water no more than one day per month.

In 2012, Colorado Springs received 8.11 inches of precipitation, less than half of normal. The 2012 average temperature was above normal. In its seasonal drought outlook, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts drought conditions will persist or intensify for all of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona.

In the upper Colorado River basin, snowpack Jan. 4 was 64 percent of normal. Given that the National Weather Service's three-month forecast predicts above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in the northern, central and southern Rockies, it seems highly unlikely that snowpack will reach anything like normal levels.

In early summer of 2011, the city's reservoirs were at 83 percent of capacity, holding enough water to meet more than two years of demand. Since then, storage has dropped to 48 percent. If the drought persists, and the city doesn't implement restrictions it has planned, storage could drop to 25 percent of capacity by this fall, with less than a year's demand in reserve.

At present, about 70 percent of the city's water comes from the Colorado River, transported here through a network of reservoirs, pump stations, tunnels and pipes. We're not alone in depending on the Colorado — we partner with Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as the states governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That agreement allocated the river's flow among Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California and Nevada (a later agreement added Mexico's water allocation).

Rather than allocating a percentage of the river's flow to each state, the Compact's authors expressed each state's share in acre-feet of water. They didn't realize that available records then included some of the wettest years in the river's history, nor did they expect global climate change decades later.

During the past 10 years, various adjustments have been made in the Compact, allowing for more flexibility in storage and more efficient allocation of the river's diminished resource. But as the drought deepens, Colorado Springs may have to impose ever-more draconian use restrictions.

Next month, City Council will update the water shortage ordinance, which will include both voluntary and compulsory water-use restrictions. The ordinance will go into effect on April 1. No fooling.

How restrictive will it be? That depends on the mountain snowpack, or lack thereof. If this drought is the harbinger of a basin-wide reset, we may find ourselves adapting to the kind of use restrictions that Las Vegas adopted years ago. Turfgrass lawns might disappear and our city's urban forest, deprived of supplemental irrigation, might slowly die away.

Is drought the new normal? "We don't know what the 'new normal' is yet," says CSU chief water services officer Gary Bostrom, who has worked on water projects for 30 years. "But people 50 years from now will thank us for developing our rights on the Arkansas [River] with the Southern Delivery System, and getting less dependent on the Colorado."

Bostrom paused. "By then," he mused, "we'll all be drinking recycled wastewater anyway ..."



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