Aurora Water just issued an urgent reminder that a Westerner’s outlook can change dramatically just by jumping over into the next river basin.
Skiers can be reveling in ridiculous powder at Steamboat and feeling good about how much water the Yampa and White rivers will contribute to the dry Colorado River come spring.
At the same time, Aurora sits with half-empty reservoirs and a dwindling snowpack in one of its key resource basins, the Arkansas River watershed. Already fearing water levels for Colorado’s third-largest city may approach emergency conditions this summer, the city council voted Monday to cut one day from allowed lawn watering schedules and add a surcharge for outdoor use.
The basin-to-basin disconnect was visible during the final Aurora City Council vote approving stage one drought status and the surcharges. Council member Françoise Bergan asked Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown to explain to residents, once again, the bleak facts adding up to only two days a week of lawn watering this year.
“Seems like every Wednesday we get a snowstorm,” Bergan said. Snowpack maps of the kind flashed on TV weather screens “looked really good,” she added.
Brown proceeded to point out different views of Colorado’s snowpack map.
Aurora takes 50% of its water from the South Platte River basin, where snowpack totals on Feb. 28 were 107% of the historic average. The reassuring numbers Bergan recalled were from basins like the Gunnison, at 138% of average. The portion of the South Platte that Aurora draws from is faring even worse, Brown said.
Another quarter of Aurora’s water comes from the Arkansas River basin, which reports only 77% of the average snowpack, Brown added. The agency forecast “does not look very promising for the rest of this year,” he said.
Aurora’s reservoirs are already low after years of challenging drought. Brown said they will be at less than 50% of reservoir capacity by the time spring runoff begins to refill them.
Is Denver Water stomping some of the same emergency brakes for summer 2023? So far, the answer is no.
Denver draws more of its water from the Colorado River basin, sending it under the Continental Divide to help fill Front Range reservoirs. Those reservoirs sit at 82% of capacity right now, spokesman Todd Hartman said. Federal snow monitors show the Upper Basin at 121% of average. Soil moisture is good, meaning more of the snowpack will make it down into the river channels when melting starts.
Denver doesn’t plan on a two-day watering restriction, but will keep a sharp eye on spring snowfall and runoff, Hartman said. Denver did implement two-day limits in 2003, 2004 and 2013.
Water watchers praised Aurora’s early action, and its reliance on a science-based drought plan that was already in place.
“It definitely goes to show just how localized those decisions are,” said Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. “It’s unusual that Aurora would be announcing these watering restrictions so early in the year — which I think is great — but they’re being proactive about setting them now, and giving themselves more time to get them out to the community.”
Aurora Water has also been among the leaders in shifting home landscaping away from traditional grass turf that requires lots of watering, Rogers noted. Aurora last year banned new golf courses and sharply restricted turf for new houses. The city also has a turf buyback program, offering money per square foot of existing grass to design a water-saving landscape and install it.
Colorado Springs, like Denver, said it has no plans yet to further restrict summer 2023 watering, though it is relying on the same Arkansas River basin as Aurora. Colorado Springs Utilities reservoirs have a 2.6 year supply, and the current three-day-a-week restriction should be adequate, spokesperson Jennifer Jordan said.
Colorado Springs Utilities worked with city agencies on a recent rezoning that restricts grass lawns in new home construction and other development to 25% of lots, Jordan added.
Water conservationists are encouraged by the number of Colorado communities launching turf buybacks. There are now 29 communities offering or preparing buyback programs, up from 22 a year ago, Rogers said. Some of the communities will be taking advantage of a state grant fund created in 2022 legislation to promote turf removal or substitution.
Aurora has also earned applause from the conservation community for its Prairie Waters filtering and reuse system for drinking water, which officials now plan to double in capacity and provide a significant portion of city water needs. Adding in immediate measures to long term planning is key, Rogers said.
“This is the near-term tool to stabilize the reservoirs and reduce peak system demand,” she said.
Aurora’s 2023 rules are structured to leave residential water bills about the same as last year, but only if homeowners adhere to rules limiting irrigation from three days a week to two. Aurora calculated a base or inside-the-home use level for customers, then added the surcharge to the thousands of gallons used above the base.
The city is shooting for a 20% reduction in home water use. Odd and even numbered sides of the street will have their own days to water, assigned by the city.
Aurora Water officials tried to reassure the city council that homeowners’ lawns would not die off completely on the new water diet. They are also instructing homeowners’ associations to hold off on fining members for imperfect lawns.
Rogers agreed that grass is resilient.
“It’s going to survive even when it’s only being watered twice a week. It’s just going to look a little crispy and browner than usual,” Rogers said. “But I would also say we should anticipate that we’re going to see more of these drought restrictions in the future, across the Front Range.”