Adoption of permanent water conservation principles prior to a drought crisis makes sense. We live in a semiarid climate and will have periodic droughts. Long-term planning is always less costly and painful than crisis response.
The new ordinance addresses the frequency and time of watering for those using automatic sprinkler systems.
1. You may operate sprinklers up to three times per week, your choice of days. This is adequate frequency for turf and almost all plants that will do well in our climate.
2. Between May 1 and Oct. 15, sprinkler operation is prohibited from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the warm hours of the day, most water applied will be lost to evaporation. While it might seem to be a good idea to run the sprinklers mid-day when it is very warm, it will actually be less beneficial to the turf than watering at a cooler time of the day.
3. Drip irrigation, watering cans and hose watering with a shut-off nozzle are allowed at any time.
4. If you are establishing a new landscape or have other special circumstances, you can apply to Colorado Springs Utilities for a permit or allocation plan.
5. Broken or leaking sprinkler systems are required to be repaired within 10 days.
6. Water runoff across nonirrigated ground, street or sidewalks is prohibited.
Municipal water providers in Aspen, Vail, Steamboat and other communities say there is no threat from COVID-19 in their water supplies and that people do not need to hoard bottled water — provided that the employees who operate the various water plants can still come to work.
And yet, two weeks into Colorado’s crisis, you still see people exiting the state’s grocery stores with shopping carts brimming with multipacks of 4-ply Charmin or Angel Soft toilet paper. And buried under the TP, you’ll spot the 48-bottle cartons of Arrowhead or Fiji water.
Toilet paper aside, water systems operators around the state — including ski towns, which are among the hardest-hit areas for the novel coronavirus pandemic — do not understand why people think they need to stock up on bottled water.
“Aspen Water provides safe, high-quality water that exceeds all stringent state and federal drinking-water regulations,” said City of Aspen spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin. “Aspen’s water-treatment methods use filtration and disinfection process which remove and inactivate viruses.”
The same is true for Front Range water utilities.
“We have wastewater-treatment facilities that work above and beyond the standards devised for us, so there is no worry that water would be impacted by COVID-19,” said Ryan Maecker, spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, where surrounding El Paso County is second only to Denver in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Those drinking-water standards, established by the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, are enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“The water is treated and it’s disinfected, which takes care of all viruses,” said Linn Brooks, general manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District in eastern Eagle County, which has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Officials say water should be the least of anyone’s concerns during the growing outbreak, which has prompted an unprecedented statewide stay-at-home order and has seen most nonessential businesses and schools shut down.
“No, there are no water shortages. No, municipal water is not a vector for COVID-19,” said Zach Margolis, utility manager for Silverthorne Water & Sewer in Summit County.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is thought to spread in the following manner: “Mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) … through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
Michelle Carr, distribution and collection manager for the City of Steamboat Springs Water and Sewer, attended a CDC webinar on the topic of COVID-19 and drinking-water systems.
“It said that the coronavirus is essentially very susceptible to our disinfection processes, and that while our disinfection process targets bacteria, bacteria is less susceptible than this virus,” Carr said. “So, the fact that we’re treating for killing bacteria means that we should adequately be taking care of the COVID virus.”
Buying bottled water during the ongoing pandemic makes no sense, she said.
“Our water is completely safe to drink,” Carr said. “I don’t anticipate that there will ever be an issue where we’re spreading COVID-19 through the treated potable water system. The bottled water is completely unnecessary.”
Brooks won’t speculate on why people are hoarding toilet paper, but she does have a theory regarding the stockpiling of bottled water.
“I think (people) see communications on how to isolate at home, how to prepare to a shelter in place, how to deal with emergencies, and those instructions almost always tell you to get bottled water,” said Brooks, adding that some people inexplicably prefer to drink bottled water all the time. “I don’t particularly understand that because our water here is so great, and (bottled water) certainly has an environmental impact.”
Various municipal, county and state emergency declarations have been enacted, covering water systems, but officials say those mostly just allow them to apply for state and federal funds or obtain additional equipment if necessary. Most water providers and wastewater-treatment operators are planning for staff shortages and doing everything they can to keep their staff healthy.
“We are not aware of any specific threats to our water system,” said Aspen’s Rapkin. “We have taken proactive measures to isolate our operations staff in order to continue to provide this critical community resource.”
Brooks agrees that staffing is the biggest concern as the virus spreads.
“Our biggest risk is absenteeism of our operators,” she said. “But, that being said, we can run with a pretty lean crew even if we got into some pretty significant absenteeism, as long as it doesn’t hit everyone at once, which we don’t think is likely at all.”
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which treats and provides water for users from East Vail to Wolcott along Interstate 70, took steps to mitigate against absenteeism early on.
“We knew that that was going to be our biggest risk and that protecting our employees was the most important thing that we could do. That’s our highest priority — to keep our staff healthy,” said Brooks, who added that any staffer with a symptom of any kind must stay home from work and not return until they have been free of symptoms for 72 hours.
Even if smaller mountain utilities were to be hit suddenly by a COVID-19 outbreak and get into staffing problems, other water-systems operators would step in to help. A cooperative venture among all utilities across the state and codified with intergovernmental agreements dictates that if a utility needs assistance, others will provide aid.
“So, if there’s somebody that has a plant failure, and we have staffing, we will send our staffing to them,” City of Aurora Water Department spokesman Greg Baker said during a call with other Aurora and Colorado Springs water officials. “I know Colorado Springs has been heavily involved in (mutual assistance) as well, so that should really not be a major concern.”
The desire to hoard bottled water, on the other hand, escapes officials.
“The bottled-water hoarding is a phenomenon we do not understand, because we bring safe, high-quality drinking water to your house,” Baker said. “We deliver it for a half a penny a gallon, so why are people going out and buying water? We do not understand that at all.”
Also, all the plastic is an environmental issue, Baker said, and transporting it around the state or out of state in bottles removes local water from Aurora’s extensive reuse system for irrigation and agriculture.
“So, whenever people take bottled water and start shipping it out, you’re kind of losing that reusable component, and that impacts our culture because we’re so used to reusability. So that hurts us there,” Baker said. “It also hurts us through the fact that, frankly, we have some of the highest-quality water in the state, and why do you need it in a bottle? It’s as irrational as the toilet-paper hoarding.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 28 editions of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.
FromThe Chaffee County Times (Max R. Smith) via The Leadville Herald:
In the mid-1960s, a partnership between the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora installed a diversion dam in the Arkansas River south of Granite near Clear Creek Reservoir as part of a pipeline system bringing water from the western slope of the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
The presence of the diversion dam caused that portion of the river to be non-navigable, requiring portaging of one’s raft or kayak.
By the end of this year, however, Colorado Springs Utilities is on schedule to complete a three-year project to build a new river diversion that will allow boaters to float right through, meaning that the 2020 rafting season will be the first in over 50 years in which the entirety of the Arkansas can be travelled without portage.
“We’ll see how the snow treats us over the next couple weeks, but we’re really down to some final boulder work in the river and general site cleanup at this point,” said CSU project manager Brian McCormick.
The intake that pumped water out of the Arkansas (which, legally speaking, comes from the Eagle River Basin as part of the Homestake Project), destined for Aurora and Colorado Springs, “as with anything in the river for 50-plus years, it took some wear and tear,” McCormick said. “By about the mid-2000s, the cities recognized we needed to rehabilitate this structure to keep it as a reliable facility and ensure safety of the river users.”
Construction on the new $9.1 million diversion project began in 2016 after a number of years of planning, budgeting, and engineering. Support for the project included $1.2 million in grant funding from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board…
Significant to water consumers in Colorado Springs and Aurora, the project utilizes a new intake and piping structure to send water to the Otero pump station, he said.
Significant to boaters is a chute constructed of boulders and mortar with six two-foot drops that will allow them to pass the intake facility without exiting the river. McCormick said that CSU put the call out to members of Colorado’s river recreation community to participate in a trial run down the chute in November, testing the Arkansas’s newest whitewater feature…
Significant to the scaled, Omega-3 rich denizens of the Arkansas who swim upstream to spawn every year, the new diversion also features a fish ladder: a sequence of weirs and pools that give brown and rainbow trout a route to move up the river to their spawning grounds.
One morning last month, Brad Johnson arrived at a patch of rippling yellow grasses alongside U.S. 24, a few miles south of Leadville in the upper Arkansas River valley. Sandwiched among a cluster of abandoned ranch buildings, a string of power lines and a small pond, it is an unassuming place — except, of course, for its views of 14,000-foot peaks rising across the valley.
But appearances can be deceiving. The rather ordinary-looking property was a fen, which is a groundwater-fed wetland filled with organic “peat” soils that began forming during the last ice age and that give fens their springy feel.
“It’s like walking on a sponge,” Johnson said, marching across the marshy ground, stopping every now and then to point out a rare sedge or grass species.
Johnson was visiting the fen to record groundwater measurements before winter sets in. As the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, Johnson is part of an effort spearheaded and paid for by Aurora Water and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo to study new ways to restore fens.
The research could help facilitate future water development in Colorado, such as the potential Whitney Reservoir project, part of a 20-year water-development plan from Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities for the upper Eagle River watershed. The utilities, working together as Homestake Partners, are looking at building the reservoir in the Homestake Creek valley, south of Minturn, in an area that probably contains fens, which could hinder the project.
Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together on the reservoir project, and Aurora and Pueblo are funding the fens research. Although the Whitney project is not directly tied to the fen project, if the research efforts are successful, they could help Aurora and Colorado Springs secure a permit approval for the reservoir — and maybe alter the fate of an ecosystem.
If you’ve walked through Colorado’s high country, chances are you’ve walked by a fen, which are among the state’s most biodiverse and fragile environments. To protect fens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a “fen policy” in 1996. The policy, amended in 1999, determined that fens are irreplaceable resources because their soils take so long to regenerate. “On-site or in-kind replacement of peatlands is not possible,” the policy reads.
Inside the Fish and Wildlife Service, however, a different interpretation emerged. “Irreplaceable” became “unmitigable,” making it difficult or impossible to secure approval for any project that would severely impact fens.
Although Johnson is in favor of fen conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “unmitigable” interpretation bothered him. Not only was that status not supported by the fen policy itself, he believes saying “no” all the time is not in the best interest of fens.
“My fear is that if we don’t have the means of mitigating our impacts, we’ll just impact them,” he said.
Eventually, Johnson believes, conservationists will have to make some concessions to development. But by researching better mitigation techniques, he hopes he can help preserve fens in the long run.
An organ transplant
For water utilities, fens have been particularly troublesome. Fens like to form in high-alpine valleys, the places best suited for dams and water reservoirs that take water from rivers mostly on the Western Slope and pump it over the mountains to supply the Front Range’s growing population.
But the fen policy has stymied many of the utilities’ plans to develop new water projects. Those defeats helped spur Front Range utilities to start researching new mitigation strategies that would help them comply with environmental regulations — and get around the fen policy.
“They wanted to figure out how to do this right so they could actually permit their projects,” Johnson said.
Through the fen-research project, Aurora and Pueblo saw an opportunity to address the fen policy’s requirement that a project offset unavoidable impacts to a fen by restoring an equivalent amount of fen elsewhere.
Since the fen project began 16 years ago, Aurora and Pueblo have invested $300,000 and $81,500 in the research, respectively. More recently, other funders have joined the effort, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities at about $10,000 each and the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($100,000).
After a number of fits and starts, Johnson three years ago settled on a design for the research that would test whether it’s ecologically possible to transplant fen soils from one location to another. First, Johnson restored the original groundwater spring at the old Hayden Ranch property. Then, he and a team of helpers removed blocks of soil from another degraded fen site and reassembled them, like an organ transplant, at the “receiver” site, where the restored spring now flows through veinlike cobble bars and sandbars, feeding the transplanted fen.
It’s still too early to know whether the project could eventually serve as a fen-mitigation strategy for a new reservoir, but Johnson is optimistic about the results thus far. In 2017, after just one growing season, he was shocked to discover 67 different plant species growing at the transplanted fen site — compared with just 10 at the donor site. He was thrilled by the news. The data showed that the transplanted fen ecosystem is thriving.
That’s good news for utilities such as Aurora, too.
A week after Johnson visited the Rocky Mountain Fen Project site, Kathy Kitzmann gave a tour of the wetland-filled valley formed by Homestake Creek where Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to build Whitney Reservoir.
Kitzmann, a water resources principal for Aurora Water, drove down the bumpy, snow-covered road that winds along the valley bottom, pointing to the two creeks that would — along with Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, near Camp Hale — help fill the reservoir. A pump station would send the water upvalley to the existing Homestake Reservoir and then through another series of tunnels to the Front Range.
In the lower part of the valley, Kitzmann stopped at the first of four potential reservoir sites — ranging in size from 6,000 acre-feet to 20,000 acre-feet — that the utilities have identified for the project and the wetlands it would inundate.
“You can sort of see why it wouldn’t be the best, just given the vastness of the wetlands,” Kitzmann said.
Farther along, the valley becomes more canyonlike, with higher rocky walls and fewer wetlands — probably offering a better reservoir site, said Kitzmann, although the permitting agencies won’t know for sure until they complete their initial feasibility studies.
In June, Aurora and Colorado Springs submitted a permit application to the U.S. Forest Service to perform exploratory drilling and other mapping and surveying work, but the agency has not yet approved the permit.
Potential fen impacts are just one of several environmental hurdles facing the project. One of the Whitney alternatives would encroach on the Holy Cross Wilderness. Aurora and Colorado Springs have proposed moving the wilderness boundary, if necessary, to accommodate the reservoir.
It’s also likely that the wetlands in the Homestake Valley contain fens, but until the utilities conduct wetland studies around the proposed reservoir sites next summer, the scope of the impacts remains uncertain.
Environmental groups including Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit, oppose the Whitney Reservoir project, arguing that it would destroy one of the state’s most valuable wetlands, as well as an important habitat for wildlife and rare native plants.
In the meantime, Aurora is hopeful that Johnson’s research might one day help solve some of the environmental problems around new water development. “We are excited about proving that you can restore and rehabilitate fens,” Kitzmann said.
But is a transplanted fen as good as not touching one in the first place?
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said fens are still designated a “Resource Category 1,” which means that the appropriate type of mitigation is avoidance, or “no loss.”
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams echoed the spokesperson’s statement, noting that land managers place a high emphasis on protection for fens: “It’s really hard to replace a wetland in these high elevations.”
Johnson, asked whether he was worried that his research into fen mitigation might end up facilitating the kinds of projects that are most damaging to fens. He sighed. “I’m sensitive to that,” he said.
But like it or not, Johnson believes that more impacts to fens are inevitable. As Colorado’s population grows, water utilities will have to build new reservoirs, the state will need new roads and ski resorts will want to expand.
“I can’t argue with whether they should get built,” he said. “I’m just a wetlands guy.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 18 print edition of the Vail Daily.
The Homestake Project is a trans-mountain raw water collection, storage, and delivery system co-owned and operated by the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, Colo.
The Homestake Arkansas River Diversion (ARD), between Granite and Buena Vista, Colo., was constructed in 1964 as the original intake for the Otero Pump Station. Water is now primarily withdrawn from Twin Lakes, however the ARD remains an alternate point of diversion. The ARD has deteriorated and requires repair. The ARD was not originally designed as a navigable facility.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) which includes the site of the ARD. CPW expressed interest in partnering with Springs Utilities on a rehabilitation project to include a boat chute for downstream navigation as this location is currently considered the only non-navigable reach of the Arkansas River between Leadville and Canon City, Colo.
The Upper Arkansas River is both one of the most heavily used rivers in the United States for whitewater recreation and is a Gold Medal Trout Fishery. The river is managed to support multiple objectives including water supply and delivery and outdoor recreation.
The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are constructing a rehabilitation project that will replace the intake and diversion, provide a boat chute for downstream navigation, and provide upstream fish passage for spawning of brown and rainbow trout. The project also included improving river safety for recreational users and providing whitewater boat portage. User safety was an extremely important design consideration.
A physical model was constructed to test and refine hydraulic elements to optimize performance, maximize user safety and meet design guidelines for recreational whitewater for all three components: boat chute, fish passage and the new intake structure.
The $9 million construction cost of the project is being jointly funded by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. $1.2 million in grants is coming from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board through grant funding to support the Colorado Water Plan (Water Supply and Demand Gap and Environmental and Recreation Grant Programs). The Pueblo Board of Waterworks is donating the easements necessary to construct and maintain the diversion.
Here’s a report from Jason Blevins writing for The Colorado Sun:
But just below the former riverside mining camp of Granite, where a dilapidated dam built in 1964 has long blemished the Arkansas River’s beauty, rebar jutted from concrete blocks, preventing raft passage and spawning trout battled the steep wall of blasted rocks to reach upstream pools.
“Not a lot of thought went into recreation or fish when this dam was built,” said Ronald Sanchez, an engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities.
A lot of thought is going into fish and recreation now, as water managers in Colorado Springs and Aurora join the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in rebuilding the diversion that directs water to the Front Range.
The $9.1 million project will make the entire river from Leadville to Cañon City navigable for rafts for the first time in at least 55 years.
It’s part of the vast Colorado Springs- and Aurora-owned Homestake Project that brings Eagle River Basin water from the Holy Cross Wilderness to the Arkansas River Basin, through the Homestake, Turquoise and Twin Lakes reservoirs for delivery to the Front Range cities.
The cities started construction of the Arkansas River diversion in July 2018, creating three distinct channels below a rebuilt intake that serves as a backup water diversion to the Otero Pump station downstream of Twin Lakes Dam. Before the Twin Lakes Dam was built in the late 1970s, the diversion was the original intake that collected and directed water to the Otero Pump station for delivery to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
One channel is a fish ladder for spawning brown and rainbow trout. Another channel is a spillway to accommodate flood-level flows like the ones that swelled the Arkansas River this spring. And a third is a series of six drops allowing rafts safe passage.
The project marks a new era of collaboration between the diverse interests on the Arkansas River between Leadville and Cañon City, one of the most recreated stretches of river in the U.S.
“For me the coolest thing about it is that you have these large water utilities in Colorado going above and beyond to do the right thing for the next 50 years,” said Salida-based whitewater park engineer Mike Harvey.
Ten years ago, Harvey helped the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area craft a report urging Aurora and Colorado Springs to consider recreation and fish when it came time to rebuild the Granite Dam diversion…
The Arkansas River accounts for more than $74 million of the $177 million in economic impact created by commercial rafting in Colorado. The 102 miles of river in the Upper Arkansas River Valley also ranks among the 322 miles of Colorado waterways that qualify as Gold Medal Fisheries that can yield a dozen large trout per acre. It also supplies a large percentage of water to Colorado Springs and Aurora via the 66-inch pipeline that runs from the Otero Pump Station.
Rebecca Mitchell, the executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the project exemplifies the collaboration of the Colorado Water Plan, which gathered perspectives from all types of water users in the state to create a policy roadmap for future water planning across the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the conservation board provided $1.2 million in funding through Colorado Water Plan grant programs.