The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced through a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As drought conditions deepen, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on June 23 sought activation of the state's Drought Task Force and Phase 2 of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.
The governor's office said in a release the drought spans 81 percent of the state, with severe and extreme conditions affecting a third of the state, including El Paso County.
Colorado’s Drought Task Force includes officials with the departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs and Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The second phase of the plan means the task force will assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and recommend mitigation measures. In addition, the Agricultural Impact Task Force is activated to make an assessment on physical and economic impacts.
Meantime, there doesn't appear to be any plan to further restrict water use in Colorado Springs where customers have been under restrictions since May to water their lawns no more than three times a week.
The Southern Delivery System (SDS), which was activated in 2016, guards against the city running dry. However, the city needs to add other water projects and water resources in years to come
to meet the need of an estimated population forecast of 770,000 by 2070, says Pat Wells, Colorado Springs Utilities general manager for water resources and demand management. The utility now serves just under 500,000 people.
Asked why the $825-million SDS doesn't negate the need for restrictions of any kind, Wells says, "A foundational component of our water conservation program for the past couple of decades is focused on outdoor water use and reshaping outdoor water demands — to get people to use the right amount of water."
Wells calls efficient water usage "a foundational practice for water managers throughout the western United States. What we’re trying to do here is set a new normal and create a culture of responsible stewardship."
But usage here continues to climb. According to a report given to the Utilities Board on June 17, usage in May averaged 87.5 million gallons per day (MGD), or about a third more than last May. That pushed up year-to-date demands to an average of 48.7 MGD, which is 7.9 percent more than last year at this time. Also, temperatures in May were 3.6 degrees above normal, and precipitation in May was only 57 percent of normal. So far this year, the region's precipitation ranks at 73 percent of normal.
Colorado Springs currently has more than two years' worth of water in storage, which is good news for gardeners, because more severe water restrictions wouldn't be triggered until the amount in storage falls to a 1.5-year supply, Wells says.
Homestake Reservoir is one of Colorado Springs Utilities essential storage facilities.
But things can change. Prolonged drought could deplete that storage. Then what?
"Storage is the cornerstone," Wells says.
Utilities recently completed land acquisition for the 30,000-acre-foot Gary Bostrom Reservoir, the second phase of SDS, which is planned for construction near Bradley Road southeast of the city in the next decade. Another project, called the Eagle River project in the mountains, will create another reservoir, hopefully by 2040 to 2050, Wells says.
"Our system has extreme variability," he says. "We manage that with storage and our complex water system. Even with SDS online there was never any guarantee that Mother Nature wasn’t going to throw us a curve ball."
Some years, snowpack fills reservoirs to the brim and rainfall reduces demand, but not every year.
"What we’re seeing is a lot more variability in the swings," Wells says, noting that water managers study tree rings, climate change models and other data to try to predict what lies ahead.
"While our demand has flattened and we’re serving more customers with the same amount of water," he says, "our supplies are becoming more variable."
As Wells quips, quoting baseball legend Yogi Berra, "The future ain't what it used to be."
Take the Colorado River, which provides water to multiple states and Mexico. It's been in drought conditions for 20 years and provides 60 to 70 percent of Colorado Springs Utilities' supply.
"We are going to reach a point, as demand continues to grow in the West and supplies become uncertain, we’re going to have to use water more efficiently and cut back some of our demand on the Colorado River," he says.
At present, Utilities is capable of delivering 95,000 acre feet of water on demand, but that demand is forecast to rise to 136,000 acre feet in the decades to come.
That's why Utilities is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to expanding its water supply.
"With a growing population, we have to bring in more supplies," Wells says. "Our storage needs grow as our cities grow."
Courtesy Colorado Springs Utilities
The city spent $1.75 million for water storage in this former gravel pit near Lamar.
Besides storage, Utilities wants to work more deals with agricultural users
like it did in the Arkansas Valley in 2018. Another strategy might be to expand the number of non-potable systems used for irrigation. But ultimately, Utilities, like other water providers in the West, likely will be confronted with re-treating and recycling water back into its domestic delivery system.
"In the next 30 to 50 years it may become more technically feasible to do direct potable reuse," he says, noting that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has approved a grant for a Utilities reuse demonstration project in partnership with Aurora, Denver and Colorado School of Mines.
On June 17, the Utilities Board was advised that temperatures are expected to rise above average across the state at the same time when there are no guarantees precipitation will match or exceed a normal year.
And the Drought Monitor, produced by a collection of agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has this to say about the current drought:
Although rainfall deficits only date back a few weeks to a few months, other factors are making things worse, specifically abnormal heat, low humidity, and gusty winds. High temperatures approached triple-digits as far north as South Dakota. All these factors led to broad areas of deterioration in eastern Colorado, southern Kansas, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and adjacent parts of Nebraska. Notably, extreme drought (D3) expanded to cover a large part of southern and eastern Colorado, and adjacent parts of Kansas.