Denver Water asks EPA for rare exemption from Safe Drinking Water Act — @WaterEdCO

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Denver Water is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a rare exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the latest move in the utility’s long-running legal dispute with state health officials over how best to keep lead out of its customers’ tap water.

In exchange for the exemption, the water utility, which serves 1.4 million people in metro Denver, is offering to spend more than $300 million replacing up to 90,000 lead service lines.

Though lead isn’t present in Denver’s treated water, it can leach into water as it is delivered to homes via these older, customer-owned water pipes. The contaminant, even in small amounts, is considered unsafe, especially for children.

In addition to replacing the lines, Denver Water has also offered to alter its water treatment protocols, conduct an extensive public education campaign, and provide free lead filters to customers whose water supplies are at risk of contamination.

The EPA will begin public hearings next month to consider the utility’s request and determine whether its proposed approach is as good or better than using an additive called orthophosphate to control corrosion from lead pipes. The state health department, backed by the EPA, ordered the utility to use orthophosphate as a corrosion-control measure last year and gave the utility until March of 2020 to implement the new treatment process.

Within weeks of the state’s order, which came in March of 2018, the City of Aurora, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued to stop the order, saying that the addition of orthophosphate to drinking water could cause millions of dollars in damage to the South Platte River watershed and would cause wastewater treatment costs to rise. Denver Water eventually joined the suit. Settlement talks since then have failed to yield an agreement.

Denver Water said it believes the alternate approach it is proposing has merit.

“We would attack the source of the problem and ultimately, at the end of the day, we believe that this could be a more effective approach than adding orthophosphate,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead.

Graphic via Denver Water

Thousands of Denver-area homes built prior to 1951 are at risk of having lead-contaminated water due to aging service lines. A map compiled by Denver Water shows more than a dozen neighborhoods, including parts of Berkeley, Washington Park and Montclair, as being most at risk. Dozens of other neighborhoods on the map are less likely to face contamination, based on an analysis Denver Water has done which looks at such variables as the years in which neighborhoods were constructed and results of past water sampling.

Denver Water has been monitoring and testing customers’ tap water since 2012, when a routine sampling project showed lead in some taps that exceeded allowable levels.

Since then, the utility has conducted a series of studies to determine the best method for ensuring its water is not corrosive, and had previously offered to adjust the PH balance of its water to mitigate the problem. Up until now, it had also offered to replace a few hundred lead lines a year as maintenance on its system required, leaving any other replacement activity to homeowners and developers.

At that rate, it would have taken up to 50 years before all of Denver’s lead service lines were replaced.

The issue is complex for water providers. Adding orthophosphate is a highly effective way to eliminate lead because it dramatically reduces the corrosion in pipes, making it more difficult for lead to leach into drinking water. But as drinking water is used and then flushed into the wastewater treatment system, the phosphorous must be removed because it causes algal blooms and other environmental issues in waterways. Wastewater treatment operators are required to remove it before they return treated wastewater to streams.

In the seven years since Denver Water became aware of the problem, thousands of Denver residents have continued to be exposed to lead, but the extent of the problem isn’t clear. As part of its monitoring program, the utility has processed 5,600 customer requests for lead testing, with 2,000 of these showing lead levels of at least 1 part per billion, indicating the likely presence of lead service lines, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires education and treatment when levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

What Denver is experiencing is much less severe than in some cities, such as Flint, Mich., where lead levels in tap water were hundreds of times higher before being discovered in 2015. Still, like other older urban areas, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., Denver must find a way to eliminate the lead or face legal action from the state and federal government.

Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said his agency would consider the evidence Denver Water presents to the EPA in August before it makes a decision about whether to support Denver’s exemption request. The EPA has so far supported the state’s orthophosphate order.

“Denver is seeking to demonstrate that this alternative is as good or maybe better at reducing lead at customers’ taps. The CDPHE is going to evaluate the evidence when it is submitted,” Ingels said.

Whether the utility will win the exemption isn’t clear. According to the CDPHE, just two exemptions in this area have been granted by the EPA.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It would have been tough before Flint, and it’s tougher now.”

Denver public health officials said they are supportive of the utility’s exemption request because it offers a more holistic solution to the problem, one that encompasses public health and the environment.

Elizabeth Scherer, air and water manager at the Denver Department of Public Health, said education and follow-up on the problem are a critical part of what Denver Water is proposing. “Denver Water and the city understand that education is a big component of the process and that outreach to non-English speakers and low-income communities will need to occur to make sure folks are comfortable with this approach.”

The EPA will hold hearings next month to gather the public’s input on the issue and is slated to make a decision by October. If the EPA does not grant the variance, then Denver will proceed with adding orthophosphate to its drinking water.

Gross Reservoir Expansion Project update

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

From TheDenverChannel.com (Jace Larson):

The project will require significant construction over seven years to increase the reservoir’s holding capacity to 119,000 acre-feet of water.

When built, the dam will be the tallest in Colorado.

Denver Water says the additional space is needed to spread out capacity outside of Denver for the water utility used by 1.4 million people in the city and its surrounding suburbs.

The proposed construction project is not without opposition from neighbors and environmentalists who say they will endure years of construction on a water project that will never provide water to their taps.

“Boulder County is going to host this reservoir but gets no water from it. We derive no benefit from it. We only pay the price of having this thing in our county,” said Tim Guenthner, who lives just above the dam in a subdivision of about 1,000 people.

Denver7 decided to take a 360 look at this issue and gathered perspectives from five people connected to the proposed construction project…

Boulder County Commissioners have also taken a stance that Denver Water must get local permits before it can start the project.

Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said Denver Water doesn’t believe the law requires that and points out it has undergone numerous environmental studies and worked through the state permit process. This issue will likely be decided by another judge…

Denver Water’s Gross Dam project manager, Jeff Martin, acknowledges the project will cause noise for neighbors.

“Well we don’t hide from the fact there’s going to be some disruption from the noise, but we are looking at ways of minimizing that noise,” Martin said.

As an example, Denver Water decided to move the quarry needed to make cement to a portion of the lake that will be covered by water once more capacity is added. The original plan had the quarry on a portion of land jetting out into the lake.

Have an on-site quarry will also mean less truck traffic.

Martin said even with conservation efforts, Denver Water needs more capacity. He said experts have provided the water utility with data showing there will be 5 million more people in Colorado by 2050.

Denver water has 90% of its storage lakes west and south of the metro area, but only has 10% up north. This new dam project will add significantly more water storage north of the city.

“That’s important because if we have a catastrophic event or a drought in one of the systems, it leaves us depending on the other system,” he said. “What we want to do is create a little bit more balance and put more water in Gross Reservoir. This project is going to triple the size of the reservoir.”

[…]

Kirk Klanke is a member of Trout Unlimited, an environmental group seeking to protect and restore rivers across the country.

His perspective is one many wouldn’t expect from a member of the environmental group. He’s a supporter of the new dam.

“I think it’s extremely selfish to think we shouldn’t grow,” he said.

He says Denver Water has the legal right to build more capacity someplace. Gross Reservoir is the best option.

“Raising an existing dam has far less environmental damage than building a new one somewhere else,” Klanke said.

He says Denver Water has agreed to put significant effort into protecting the Colorado River. When it is hot out, river temperatures rise if there’s only a little water flowing.

Denver Water has agreed to keep water in the river during those periods and fill the lake during spring runoff. It will also draw water at different places in the river to minimize the impact to one area.

Gross Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

@DenverWater: Draft Lead Reduction Program Plan comment period open

Here’s the release from Denver Water:

On July 1, Denver Water announced the launch of a summer education and outreach program to inform the public about a proposed Lead Reduction Program Plan.

The executive summary of the draft plan is available for review and public comment until Aug. 7, 2019. Interested customers and stakeholders can access the executive summary and comment form here.

The water delivered to homes and businesses in Denver is lead-free, but lead can get into water as it moves through lead-containing internal plumbing and service lines that are owned by the customer and are not part of Denver Water’s system. By March 2020, Denver Water is required by the state health department to add orthophosphate to the drinking water it delivers to customers to help reduce the corrosivity of the water and reduce the risk of lead getting into the household water from these sources.

The draft Lead Reduction Program Plan is a proposed alternative to adding orthophosphate to the water system. The comment period is intended to gather input from the community about the components of the proposed program, which include:

  • Increasing the pH level, which further reduces the corrosivity of the water.
  • Providing at-home water filters for all customers in Denver Water’s service area with a suspected lead service line, free of charge.
  • Replacing the estimated 50,000 to 90,000 lead service lines with copper lines in Denver Water’s service area at no charge to the customer over the next 15 years.
  • To implement the multipart program instead of the orthophosphate additive, Denver Water is required to submit a variance request to the EPA in mid-August, which will incorporate public input. Following that submittal, the EPA will initiate its own public comment period before it decides which approach will be implemented.

    Community members are encouraged to learn more and speak directly to Denver Water team members at a variety of events this summer. The project website has an updated calendar of activities.

    Denver Water also has a map of estimated customer-owned lead service lines as a starting point to help customers identify the likelihood of their home having a lead service line. Customers are encouraged to verify the accuracy of the information represented by this map for their residence by requesting a free water quality test from Denver Water.

    Graphic via Denver Water

    @DenverWater hires contractor for Gross Reservoir Expansion Project

    The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will add 77,000 total acre feet — 72,000 for Denver Water use and 5,000 for an environmental pool that provides additional water for South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods — nearly tripling reservoir capacity.

    From Denver Water:

    Denver Water’s five-member Board of Water Commissioners on Wednesday approved a two-year, $4.5 million contract with Kiewit Barnard, a Joint Venture, for planning and pre-construction work during the final design phase of the $464 million Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.

    If the team’s performance during the planning and pre-construction phase meets Denver Water’s expectations, a separate contract to build the dam may be signed between Denver Water and Kiewit Barnard.

    “This is a major milestone in our 16-year effort to expand Gross Reservoir, as its original designers intended decades ago, to ensure a more reliable water supply in a future marked by greater uncertainty in weather patterns,” said Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead.

    Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility, serves 1.4 million people in Denver and surrounding suburbs.

    Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

    The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will raise the height of the existing dam, completed in 1954, by 131 feet, allowing the reservoir to nearly triple in size. When complete, the reservoir will be capable of holding about 119,000 acre-feet of water to provide greater system balance and resiliency.

    The selection process for a construction manager/general contractor for the project began in August 2018 with information meetings, followed by a formal Request for Qualifications in October 2018. Three teams responded to the request and underwent extensive evaluations and interviews by a selection team that included experts from Denver Water, the project’s design engineer and subject matter experts.

    The selection team focused on a value-based competitive process that examined each team’s qualifications, project approach, technical approach and cost.

    “Kiewit Barnard met Denver Water’s high bar for doing a project that’s important not only to the 1.4 million people who rely on us for their drinking water, but also to the people who live around the reservoir,” said Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s program manager for the expansion project.

    “We were impressed by the team’s experience with roller-compacted concrete dam construction, innovative approach and commitment to safe and responsible building practices,” Martin said.

    The project calls for adding 900,000 cubic feet of concrete to the existing structure and building the first roller-compacted, concrete, arch dam in the United States. When complete, the Gross Dam will be the tallest in Colorado and the tallest roller-compacted concrete dam in the U.S.

    “Kiewit Barnard, a Joint Venture, is very pleased to have been selected to work on this important project to support water demand for the greater Denver area,” said Jamie Wisenbaker, senior vice president of Kiewit Infrastructure Co., and an executive sponsor of the project. “We believe the team’s collective infrastructure experience in dam and reservoir construction and engineering will be a huge asset and look forward to safely delivering a high-quality project on time for Denver Water and the region.”

    Kiewit is one of North America’s largest construction and engineering organizations with extensive heavy-civil experience in water/wastewater construction, including serving as lead contractor on the Oroville Spillways Emergency Recovery project in California. Kiewit is the No. 1 contractor for dams and reservoirs in the United States according to Engineering News-Record. The company also has strong roots and experience in Denver and across Colorado, including having constructed the Interstate 25 T-REX Expansion project, the U.S. 34 Big Thompson Canyon emergency repair project and the I-225 Light Rail Line project. The company also is building Denver Water’s new Northwater Treatment Plant.

    Barnard Construction Co. Inc. brings a long track record of safety and quality on infrastructure projects in the U.S., including construction on more than 80 dams, reservoirs and dikes over the last four decades. The company’s work in this area includes new construction, raising dams and conducting emergency repairs. In 2019, Barnard was honored as a “Global Best Project” award winner by Engineering News-Record in the dam/environment category for the Muskrat Falls North and South Dams project located in Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

    The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is awaiting a final federal government approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Provided the remaining federal approvals come by the end of this year, the project is slated to be complete in 2025.

    When finished, the expanded reservoir and associated mitigation projects will create what the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has described as a net environmental benefit to state water quality by generating a wide range of environmental improvements to streams, river flows and aquatic habitats.

    Moffat Collection System Project update: “Our problem is rooted in demand and resiliency” — Jeff Martin

    Gross Reservoir , in Boulder County, holds water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. The reservoir is part of Denver Water’s storage system. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Colorado Sun (Amanda K. Clark):

    Raising the 55-year-old dam near Boulder is essential to keep a stable water supply in a changing climate, utility says. Residents insist conservation could be just as effective.

    Denver Water — Colorado’s largest and oldest utility company — in July 2017 received one of the final permits needed to raise Gross Reservoir Dam by 131 feet to increase water storage capacity by 77,000 acre-feet, or an additional 25 billion gallons of Western Slope water…

    The expansion, in the works for more than a decade, is part of the company’s long-term plan to help meet increasing water demands along the Front Range and buffer customers from future water-supply variability due to climate change…

    Denver Water has been met with sustained opposition from Boulder County residents and a handful of environmental groups who say the utility can address its water needs through expanded water conservation efforts on the Front Range.

    But with Colorado’s population growth showing no signs of slowing, water conservation may be inadequate to address projected shortages in the coming decades.

    Other concerns raised by opponents include sustained disruption to surrounding residents, increased traffic, health concerns and environmental impacts to fish and wildlife.

    Gross Reservoir is filled primarily from snowmelt that flows from the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The water is transported underground from west of the Continental Divide to the east by a pipeline called the Moffat Water Tunnel.

    The controversy over the Gross Reservoir expansion, estimated to cost $464 million, echoes an all-too-familiar story: a highly contentious discussion of tradeoffs that has rippled across the Western United States for decades.

    As cities and states across the West grapple with swelling population alongside diminishing water supplies as a result of climate change, water-resource agencies such as Denver Water are faced with the delicate task of balancing the health of ecosystems with municipal, agricultural and recreational needs…

    Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s project manager for the expansion project, doesn’t skirt around the controversy. He recognizes that the project is going to cause disruption and says that Denver Water has worked with the residents to find ways to minimize the project’s impact.

    “This has been a process,” Martin said. “We started in 2004, it took 13 years to move through the environmental assessment and permitting process. And we’ve made a lot of changes and adjustments to our plans since the beginning.”

    “No single solution is out there,” he said. “Our problem is rooted in demand and resiliency, and what I mean by resilience is that we have to make sure we have the water when we need it, and where.”

    […]

    For Patty Limerick, director of the CU Boulder’s Center for the American West and former Colorado Historian, you can’t talk about water issues on the Front Range without first looking back in time.

    When early white explorers arrived here, they deemed the Front Range unfit for settlement due to lack of water. Today, 1.4 million Denver residents have access to clean drinking water due in large part to Denver Water’s enormous infrastructure web that diverts water from the South Platte, Blue, Williams Fork and Fraser river watersheds to be stored in a network of reservoirs spread over eight counties, including Dillon, Strontia Springs and Cheesman.

    “One thing that I find fascinating, and is important to talk about, is the incredible amount of engineering that had to occur to make any of this possible in the first place,” Limerick said.

    “We, as a society, have to recognize the improbable comfort that was made possible by a taken-for-granted, but truly astonishing, water infrastructure that was put in place a hundred years ago.”

    […]

    “The year 2018 was very similar to what we would expect to see under a climate change regime. And that was a very intense but short-term drought,” said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    “We saw some reservoirs in the state declined by 50 percent in a three- to four-month period. So that obviously could not be sustained multiple years in a row,” she said. “Water providers are increasingly integrating climate change models into their water supply projections. They know that what we’ve seen in the past might not fully represent what we might see in the future. Denver Water is one of the more advanced utilities when it comes to this.”

    Finnessey says it’s not just about how much precipitation falls from year to year. It also has a lot to do with increasing temperatures, contributing to the long-term drying out of the West, a phenomenon scientists are referring to as aridification. As temperatures rise, more moisture is sucked up by the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, leaving less viable water for humans-use in the system.

    “We are planning for infrastructure that will be built in the next 20 years, that is supposed to last for the following 100 years,” said Reagan Waskom, director of Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute. “Our world is changing significantly faster than that. And not in a linear way. How do we adapt to that?

    “Water managers have to plan for extremes,” he added. “A year like this year is an argument for reservoirs. Even with climate change, you’re still gonna have some good years. And we need to be able to capture it and save it for the bad years, whether that’s in underground aquifers or in reservoirs.”

    Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

    #Runoff news: Dillon Reservoir close to full, Roberts Tunnel off

    Denver Water employees Rick Geise and Nate Hurlbut assisted in setting the plug, which helps prevent chunks of ice and snow from falling into the spillway. Photo credit: Denver Water
    ]

    From The Summit Daily News (Deepan Dutta):

    Nathan Elder, water supply manager for reservoir owner Denver Water, reported Friday that the reservoir was just under a foot from being full, with 2,600 acre-feet of storage space remaining. Elder predicted the reservoir would fill in about two days.

    The latest inflow data showed 2,219 cubic feet per second flowing into the reservoir, while 1,840 cfs is flowing out. Elder said that, while the dam wasn’t meant for flood control, the flows in the Lower Blue would be much stronger if the dam wasn’t there at all.

    “We constantly try to balance inflows with outflows,” Elder said. “If the dam wasn’t there, flows below the reservoir would be close or at 3,000 cfs.”

    Elder said the Roberts Tunnel, which channels water from the reservoir to the Front Range, was currently off and not bringing water to the Eastern Slope. Denver Water will continue adjusting flows for the reservoir to keep it at full capacity until Nov. 1, when the reservoir is lowered 3 feet to leave room for snow precipitation.

    Elder said Denver Water has been conducting twice-daily briefings with county emergency officials, updating the forecast on flows into the Lower Blue. Summit County emergency director Brian Bovaird said that all tributaries in the county were at or just below “action stage,” or when county flooding preparations take effect.

    Bovaird said there is a possibility Denver Water will increase flows below the dam to up to 1,900 CFS by this weekend, close to the highest flow recorded below the dam. However, he said there was good news from the National Weather Service, which predicted no heavy rain this weekend to push the rivers over the edge.

    Bovaird said that emergency officials will start to get concerned if the outflows rise to 2,100 CFS. But for now, Bovaird said he didn’t expect any major flooding to occur when the peak flows finally peter out next week. Bovaird reported some “nuisance” flooding in Silverthorne’s South Forty neighborhood, but it did not cause any structural damage or threaten homes.

    Bovaird added things were looking good at the Goose Pasture Tarn dam, which was built in Breckenridge in the ’60’s and has been a source of concern due to the potential for flooding or even collapse. Tenmile Creek, which approached flood stage a few weeks ago, peaked last week without any significant flooding or damage.

    A look at #ColoradoRiver Basin water year precipitation so far #COriver #aridification #DCP

    Morrow Point Dam spilling June 2014 via USBR

    From The Colorado Sun (Katie Klingsporn):

    …in the long-term puzzle of ensuring that the Colorado River — the main artery of the American West — provides water to the millions of people in the basin who depend on it, the challenges are mounting. And in the face of a complicated tangle of population growth, long-term drought and climate change, does 2019’s water stand a chance of making a meaningful impact?

    Water experts say the answer is: Sadly, not likely.

    Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller likened it to a year-end salary bonus. It’s a great development in the short term, but if it’s an anomaly in the broader picture, its effects will be minor.

    “This is a short-term boon, and we should be happy,” Mueller said before adding the caveat stressed by many in the water community: “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    A pattern of aridification

    Going from the record-breaking drought of 2018 to the record-breaking water year of 2019 is a stroke of luck that has enabled a much faster recovery of fisheries, soils and watersheds, said Taryn Finnessey, Colorado’s senior climate change specialist.

    Here, reservoirs such as Blue Mesa, Navajo and Ridgway are expected to rebound as snowmelt flushes through rivers.

    “However, on the broader Colorado River, even with a banner water year, we won’t see a significant recovery,” she said.

    Large inflows are expected into both Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border and Lake Mead downstream — the big reservoirs considered to be the savings accounts for the Colorado River basin. The reservoirs, which have been steadily dropping for years, are projected to end the year at slightly higher levels.

    But both are so far from capacity — as of June 24, Mead was only at 40 percent, while Powell was at 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation — that these increases will, at best, put them a little more than half full by year’s end.

    “So we’re not seeing a huge rebound in those really large storage buckets that provide long-term storage in the Southwest,” Finnessey said.

    Ridgway Dam

    Why not? The short answer, she said, is climate change.

    Over the past 20 years, the broader Colorado River system has experienced not only decreased precipitation — in the form of 19 years of drought — but also increased temperatures. The hotter weather creates more rapid evaporation and thirstier soils, and causes the snow to melt more quickly, transforming it from the steady flows that were once typical, into an annual big-water flush that’s harder to capture and store.

    The result, Finnessey said, is a slow shift in the basin “from drought to long-term aridification” that’s drawing down the water. A growing population only exacerbates the problem. And one good year of water won’t reverse that.

    In fact, Mueller said the river district’s engineer guesses it would require eight to 13 years “exactly like this one” to emerge from the deficit. So, relying on Mother Nature to turn things around isn’t a reliable option.

    James Eklund, the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado Basin Commission, said the problem is that the entire system of storing, capturing and using the water of the Colorado River is predicated on the way things functioned before climate change…

    Make no mistake, Eklund said, managers will store every drop they can in a year like this. Unfortunately though, “climate change is boxing Colorado water managers in from all sides.”

    […]

    The result of those talks is the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was signed in May. In that agreement, the Lower Basin states agreed to specific decreases in water use.

    The plan is designed to bank water and leave it in Lake Mead, which in turn keeps more water in Lake Powell (by preventing large releases from Powell required to bail out the Lower Basin’s supply.) And unlike in the past, the water that is banked in Powell by the Upper Basin states will belong solely to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico as a sort of emergency water account.

    Previously, all the water saved by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell could be released to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states to use.

    “That was a perverse incentive,” Eklund said of the former arrangement that didn’t really reward water conservation by Upper Basin states. “What we decided to do is make it a positive incentive.”

    The Upper Basin states, meanwhile, agreed in the Contingency Plan to explore methods for managing and reducing consumption.

    (As part of that promise, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled eight workgroups to study a demand-management program for the state, which is envisioned as a voluntary program that would pay users to not use their water rights. The water saved through that program, the river district’s Mueller said, could be stored in Lake Powell to be used explicitly for Upper Basin needs.)

    Finally, the contingency plan makes reservoir operation more flexible for Colorado’s Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming — while still respecting the environmental considerations of their water releases…

    But it’s also a problem that can’t be ignored away. “Everybody in the basin has to get better, faster, smarter at our jobs,” Eklund said. “Our policies have to become more flexible, smarter and better.”

    Mueller echoed that, noting that if Lake Powell is a measure of how secure the Upper Basin should feel about its future, “we should not feel that secure.”

    He said it’s time to take a hard look at measures such as removing sod, improving agricultural efficiency, crop switching and even cloud seeding.

    There are models of success out there. Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in Denver and the surrounding suburbs, has seen its per-capita water use drop 34 percent since 2001 thanks to major conservation efforts.

    “We’re actually using the same amount of water that we used in the ’70s even though our population has grown by half a million,” said Dave Bennett, the utility’s director of water-resource strategy. “And that’s really a testament to conservation.”

    When it comes to the Colorado River, conservation may not be enough. For now, though, it’s one of the best tools available. So, while nobody has come up with the end-all answer for solving the long-term crisis, water managers are unanimous on one thing: Users can’t afford to waste a single drop of water, even in a year of abundance.

    “We were lucky this year,” said Finnessey, the climate change specialist. “But I don’t think that’s something that we can ever assume will happen again. So we need to be really wise stewards of our resources.”