Aspen officials tuning up water conservation plan |

Aspen officials tuning up water conservation plan

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Voluntary limits on outdoor watering and lowering the threshold at which residents pay extra for excessive water use are but two steps Aspen could take to conserve water in what is shaping up to be a dry summer.

Phil Overeynder, the city’s utility director, is recommending the Aspen City Council pursue both measures in response to the statewide drought emergency declared by Gov. Bill Owens. The council is scheduled to discuss the city’s water-supply forecast when it meets this evening.

The city has an ordinance that establishes three stages of mandatory water restrictions in the event of a severe drought, but Overeynder is recommending only voluntary conservation efforts at this point, including public education and outside watering on an odd/even basis. That means residents water lawns and gardens only every other day; those with odd-numbered street addresses would water on odd-numbered dates and vice versa.

He has also recommended a lower threshold at which customers are charged extra for “extraordinary water use.” Currently, the typical residence can use as much as 66,000 to 120,000 gallons per month before the excess water rates are imposed. Other communities set the threshold in the 10,000- to 15,000-gallon range.

Overeynder is recommending the higher charge be triggered by water usage that exceeds 5,000 or 10,000 gallons per month. Once a user hits the threshold, the water rate would jump from $1.17 per 1,000 gallons to $1.76 per 1,000 gallons. No changes to the rates are proposed.

Forecasting the city’s water supply is always tricky, but current conditions indicate Aspen, like the rest of the state, should brace for a water shortage, according to Overeynder.

Most of the city’s municipal water comes from Maroon and Castle creeks, while use of wells augments the supply, especially during the summer, he said.

Without a reservoir storage system, Aspen depends on the snowpack for a consistent release of water into the two creeks.

“Our water in storage is basically snowpack,” Overeynder said. “The last five weeks have been very poor from a water-supply standpoint. We’ve seen a lot of the snowpack just disappear.”

Precipitation this year through the end of April on Independence Pass measured 14 inches, or 64 percent of normal, according to Overeynder. Runoff appears likely to peak in mid-May, almost a month ahead of usual, and Aspen is likely to see less runoff than it has experienced in the last decade, he said.

Typically, Aspen sees stream flows drop to their lowest levels about two months after the peak runoff. “We’re not expecting any significant shortages until July,” Overeynder said.

Aspenites could also see shortages in the various ditches that supply water for irrigation around town, according to Overeynder.

On the other hand, the Roaring Fork River could actually run higher this summer than it did last year, when water was diverted to the Front Range from Twin Lakes throughout the summer and into September. This year, what’s known as the “Cameo call” is claiming the water for agricultural uses in the Grand Valley on the Western Slope. Cameo is a senior water right; the diversion takes water from the Colorado River at Cameo, just east of Grand Junction.

“Less is more this year,” Overeynder said. “We could actually see more water in the river this year than we did last year.”

At this point, accurate prediction of Aspen’s summer water supply is difficult, Overeynder conceded. The “monsoon” season, which typically brings afternoon rains to Aspen starting in mid-July, could bring a quick end to the feared early summer drought.

“As things are developing as dry as they are this spring, we could see anything,” he said.

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