Roy Johannsen and his son, John, took a break from the heat in Colorado Springs last week and headed for Pikes Peak to fish. When they got to the city-owned Catamount reservoirs, they were shocked by the water level.
"I don't think in recent years I remember [reservoirs] being this low," Roy said, his line trailing at the sandy shore's edge of North Catamount Reservoir. "It was fairly high last year at this time. Last year, the dock was at the edge of the water."
Today, the water has receded 15 feet from the dock, forcing another pair of fishermen to lug their boat over the gravel and rocks to the water.
If you drive up Pikes Peak Highway and circle the lakes, the dramatic drop in the water level is unmistakable. On the east end of South Catamount Reservoir, the lake bed is bone-dry for hundreds of yards in the same spot where a friend of mine and a buddy of his caught 136 fish on three outings in the first half of June. It's the lowest my friend has seen South Catamount in at least a decade.
Elsewhere in the state, record-high snowpack actually raised some fears that some reservoirs could overflow this summer, making the situation on Pikes Peak appear doubly strange. And a little worrisome, since the Catamount reservoirs store a portion of the city's water supply.
But there's good reason for all this — and no good reason to panic — say Colorado Springs Utilities officials.
The entire Springs water system, which spans the Western Slope to Pueblo Reservoir and includes Pikes Peak reservoirs, currently is 76 percent filled. While that's lower than last year's levels, and also lower than normal levels, the relative shortfall stems from cool May temperatures that delayed runoff, Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Quintero says. That is expected to change soon with the snowmelt.
Now, local storage is a different situation.
South Catamount Reservoir, a Great Depression project along with Crystal Reservoir further east, contains only 45 percent of its 848-million-gallon capacity, while nearby North Catamount, added in 1960, stands at 70 percent of its 3.9-billion-gallon capacity, says Abby Ortega, Utilities' water resources planning supervisor.
Both are fed by Pikes Peak runoff and via a pipeline from the Blue River System, near Hoosier Pass. So when Pikes Peak got only half the snow it normally does, the reservoirs took one hit. But the bigger one came from maintenance on Montgomery Dam on Hoosier Pass, which has required draining that reservoir. Ortega says the project is to be completed in September, and the Catamount reservoirs will fill as usual next May and June.
In any event, the Catamounts are nowhere near their historic low of 21 percent capacity, which came in December 2002, amid a drought.
There's actually at least one more reason the lakes are lower than normal: lack of rain. Ortega says the city has received only slightly more than 3 inches this year, 30 percent of normal. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Drought Monitor describes portions of the Front Range, including Colorado Springs, as in a severe to extreme drought.
To keep their gardens alive, Utilities' customers have opened their taps and used 6 percent more water so far this year than last, or 12.9 billion gallons. That's still 8 percent less than the amount used in the first half of 2001, before the drought triggered usage restrictions and higher rates. The usage drop stems from more efficient use of water and the conversion of Drake Power Plant to nonpotable water, Ortega says.
She adds that the city's system is so diverse — 20 percent comes from the Pikes Peak area while most comes from transmountain supplies — that supply isn't an issue most years, including this one. "We're expected to be 130 percent of average," she says of the transmountain runoff.
The National Weather Service is calling for above-normal temperatures in July and August, with equal chances of above, below or normal precipitation.
How to conserve
Keep your lawn and plants alive and your water bill in check by using water wisely. Colorado Springs Utilities suggests that you:
• Water lawns and gardens in the morning or evening when temps are cooler to minimize evaporation.
• Adjust sprinklers so they keep water on landscapes, not the house, sidewalk or street.
• If water runs off the landscaped area easily, split watering time into shorter periods for better absorption.
• Check moisture levels before watering. If the lawn "bounces back" when stepped on, wait to water.
• Set lawn mowers at a higher level. Taller lawns shade roots and hold soil moisture better.