by Pam Zubeck
It’s been so dry this year that dirt patches are overtaking city parks, and homeowners began sprinkling their yellow lawns weeks ago.
So when city fire hydrants begin gushing water this week at a rate of a million gallons a day into city streets, don’t think Colorado Springs Utilities officials have lost their minds.
The hydrant flushing project, which flushes about a fifth of the city’s 13,000 hydrants each year, won’t jeopardize the city’s water supply or contribute to the need for water restrictions, Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says.
“If we really felt it was an onerous situation, we wouldn’t be doing that this year,” he says.
Despite the flushing and a dam project that has reduced the city’s transmountain storage capability, Utilities has ample water for a normal growing season, Berry says, promising there won’t be a repeat of 2002 when drought conditions triggered water restrictions during what turned out to be the third driest year in more than a century, with only 7.84 inches of rain. Only two Dust Bowl years, 1939 and 1934, were drier.
It seems like a no-brainer to expect rationing, considering Colorado Springs has received .37 of an inch precipitation since January 1, or 22 percent of the normal 1.69 inches, the National Weather Service reports.
Adding to the problem are high temperatures. Along with dozens of cities in 25 states, Colorado Springs experienced higher-than-normal temperatures in March. The average high was nearly 64 degrees, compared to an average of 52 in a normal year. The average minimum was 32 in March, compared to 26 degrees in a normal year, according to the Weather Service.
All that led the Pueblo Board of Water Works last week to urge its customers to conserve by using drip lines, cutting lawns to no less than three inches and sweeping driveways instead of washing them off.
But Pueblo won’t impose restrictions, and neither will Springs Utilities, despite a project to improve Homestake Reservoir, part of the city’s transmountain system, which delivers water from the Colorado River basin to Colorado Springs. The reservoir, in the Holy Cross Wilderness area near Leadville, will be drained and the work will begin this summer. (Berry says the lake is already low enough that two snowmobiles have been found at the bottom, “but no Jimmy Hoffa.”)
Utilities officials decided to move ahead on the $30 million project this year (Aurora is a partner in the project) after 2011 turned out to be a “pretty wet season,” Berry says, with 16.24 inches of precipiation for the year, not far off the normal mark of 17.4 inches.
To compensate for the empty Homestake Reservoir, Utilities purchased additional storage space in Pueblo Reservoir. That water will be delivered to the Springs through the Fountain Valley Authority water line, Berry says.
While snowfall has been below normal in most of Colorado, except for the Sangre de Cristo range, Berry says local snowpack on Pikes Peak is a little above average. That means the North and South Catamount Reservoirs, lowered last year due to repairs on Montgomery Dam near Breckenridge, will likely return to normal levels this year.
Local storage is at 73 percent of capacity, Berry says, slightly more than the historic capacity of 70 percent, while the city’s systemwide storage stands at 69 percent of capacity, compared to the historic level of 62 percent.
That the city doesn’t plan restrictions won’t keep the agency from reminding people to conserve.
“It’s critical that we make sure we really preach that conservation message and people are wise with how they use water,” Berry says. “The farther away we’ve gotten from the 2002 drought, it’s human nature of getting back into old routines of using more water than you have to on your lawn and landscaping.”
As for the hydrant flushing, Berry says the benefits to water quality and system reliability outweighed the dry-weather risk. The 10-week program starts next week in Briargate and Pine Creek.
Utilities officials said it’s too expensive to capture the water and use it elsewhere, such as on parks.
For conservation guidelines, go to http://www.csu.org/residential/water/Pages/efficiencytips.aspx