DOVE CREEK — Running out of drinking water was once unthinkable for Dove Creek, a 600-person town in southwest Colorado.
A two-decade drought and years of poor snowpack in the San Juan Mountains have depleted McPhee Reservoir. A canal that delivers water to Dove Creek and growers nearby was shut down months early this year — leaving the town on track to run out of potable water around March.
“Is it a crisis?” Dove Creek Mayor Brett Martin said in September. “Yes.”
The potential calamity was averted this week when the canal reopened to make an emergency water delivery to the town, the first time such a step has been taken in the system’s two-decade history.
But experts say it’s a harbinger of what’s to come as water becomes a disappearing commodity in communities across the West.
“It’s a wake-up call. Climate change is here and we have to adapt to it,” said Jennifer Gimbel, interim director and a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. “It’s just a fact. It’s warmer and it’s going to be drier. It’s called aridification.”
In normal times, water to irrigate 29,000 acres of farmland flows through the Dove Creek canal six months out of the year. Thirty feet wide and 8 feet deep at its widest point, the earthen canal is designed to languidly move large volumes of water and can hold 300 acre-feet, or about 100 million gallons. The small quantity destined for the town hitches a ride on top.
Other municipalities get water from the McPhee Reservoir through a short tunnel and pipelines. But because Dove Creek’s water travels some 30 miles north in the canal, the town is tethered to the irrigation schedule that runs from around May to October. When the canal shuts off in the fall, Dove Creek officials fill a storage reservoir with water they use for the rest of the year.
The system has worked fine in the time it’s been running, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages the canal.
But this year, with little snowpack, a hot, dry spring, and two years of scant runoff, the water level in the McPhee Reservoir was some 40 feet below average. There was too little water available to keep the canal running past summer. Farmers got just 8% of their usual allotment of water. Once it was delivered, the canal was shut down in early July.
By that point, Dove Creek officials knew there would be a problem.
As usual, the town had filled its 100 acre-foot reservoir with enough water to last nine months. But it happened three months early — meaning the town was on track to run out of water by spring.
Officials looked at pumping water from the Dolores River. They learned it would be too costly to quickly set up.
Martin, the mayor, readied an emergency plan to buy water from the nearby Montezuma Water company. The private supplier uses a different kind of chemical to treat its water, making it nearly 10 times more expensive than using the town’s own supply — almost $1,200 an acre-foot compared to $130.
The small farming town, the self-proclaimed pinto bean capital of the world, has a sizable population of retirees on fixed incomes.
“We will provide water to people,” Martin said, from the town’s wood-paneled administrative office in late-September. “It’s about the cost of that water.”
But after months of discussion, Curtis’ water district began sending 120 acre-feet of water down the canal to Dove Creek on Oct. 25. Fifty acre-feet had reached a pumping plant in town three days later. It should get to the town’s reservoir in the next few days.
Some water is lost as it seeps into the ground in the canal, which has a clay liner that is eroding in places.
No one wants to waste water but the delivery was necessary, Curtis said. The residents of Dove Creek “kind of need the water to get through the winter.”
Martin had just one word to describe how he felt once the water arrived: Relieved.
“Water across the board is going to be a problem”
The emergency delivery comes as much of southwest Colorado is in a severe drought.
The federal government this summer declared a first-ever water-shortage on the Colorado River, which supplies water to millions of people in the Western U.S. and Mexico. A water district that serves Mancos — in nearby Montezuma County — shut off water to agriculture to save it for residents, Curtis said. Farmers had to slash production. So did the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s agricultural operation, which received just 10% of its 24,000 acre-feet water allocation from McPhee.
Curtis said the region was the center of the drought in the state.
“In most other years, even with low water supplies, we drag (the canal closure) out towards September,” Curtis said. “This year it just didn’t work. There wasn’t enough water to drag out.”
Water levels fluctuate, but years of shortages have taken their toll, he said. McPhee had about 100,000 acre-feet of carryover water in 2020. It had one-tenth of that this year.
“It’s about multiple shortage years back to back,” Curtis said. “We had about 10% of our carryover combined with a second bad year — probably our third or fourth worst year (for runoff) on record, actually.”
Looking ahead, Dove Creek officials are trying to build a second storage reservoir that could ensure the town has a year-and-a-half supply of water on hand. The town uses about 120 acre-feet of water a year but pays for 280 acre-feet as part of its agreement with the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
It’s also trying to line up funding to pump water from the Dolores River.
Both projects are costly and would take time to construct. The town received an up to $800,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to build a second storage reservoir and hopes to get a loan from the state agency for another up to $800,000, said Dagan Chadd, Dove Creek’s public works director.
Nearly $1.8 million has been earmarked in federal appropriations legislation for the Dove Creek water pumping project, but the measure has not passed. Chadd estimates it will cost $2.2 million in all.
After facing the first water shortage in his three years as mayor, Martin believes the crisis will only get worse.
“Water across the board is going to be a problem,” he said. “The Narraguinnep Reservoir is one source. It’s virtually empty. Jackson Lake in the Mancos-area is virtually empty if not empty. McPhee Reservoir is low on their water,” he said, listing the places where water is stashed across the region. “Groundhog Reservoir is another one.”
The predicament in Dove Creek illustrates the urgency of preparing for a time when a changing climate makes water resources more unreliable, water experts said. The cost of adding or upgrading infrastructure can be out-of-reach for cash-strapped small towns.
Neil Grigg, a Colorado State University civil and environmental engineering professor, said there are about 50,000 community water systems across the country, many of them small and with little ability to take on expensive infrastructure projects. Those systems are particularly vulnerable to disruptions brought on by drought, climate change and natural disasters. A wildfire can fill up a reservoir with silt. A flood can wipe out a pipeline. A water system can run dry during a drought.
“There are all kinds of threats to it,” said Grigg, an expert on water resources planning and infrastructure. “They’re really vulnerable.”
Those small systems may face local opposition to raising taxes or finding other funding to make their water supply more reliable. Others are “flying by the seat of their pants,” fixing problems as they come along rather than taking on the long-range planning that large water supply utilities do, he said.
A storage reservoir can insulate municipalities from unexpected shortages, but they are expensive to build.
“It’s going to be a trade-off between having enough money to provide the security, and not having security with your water,” he said. “People tend to get complacent when things are OK — they don’t want to spend their money that way.”
Gimbel, the CSU water expert and a former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said towns should be looking to diversify where they get their water from and ensure they have backup sources, like groundwater wells.
“We may have to drill deeper. We may have to drill more. We have to come up with a diverse portfolio,” she said.
Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said that municipalities may be able to consolidate a patchwork of smaller water systems into one that is regional, sophisticated and better funded.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District is mostly funded by property taxes and helps pay for a variety of water quality and supply projects across nine counties in southwestern Colorado, including in Dolores County, where Dove Creek is the county seat. The district’s grant funding can cover small costs like an engineering study; federal and state dollars are usually needed to pay for construction, Wolff said.
Small towns that rely on surface water are especially challenged. Droughts bring water shortages while high-water years cause flooding that can wash out older infrastructure and lead to water quality problems, Wolff said.
He expects to see more towns face water shortages in the years ahead, as the climate changes and extreme weather events occur more frequently.
“Anything you can do to provide more certainty is what everybody is looking at right now,” he said. “Small towns, big cities, everybody wants certainty.”