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Water providers taking lack of precipitation in stride

Planning has metro-area supplies in solid shape

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Five years ago, the Denver area got one of its largest February winter storms on record, when 15.9 inches of snow fell between Feb. 2 and 4.

Fast-forward to Feb. 26, 2015, and Denver set an all-time snowfall record of 22.2 inches, breaking the mark set in 1912.

But in 2018, extended forecasts predict mostly dry conditions with only light, brief snowstorms for the next two weeks.

The lack of snowfall has been especially disappointing for the skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers in the state, but it also leaves a lot of people concerned about the water supply.

But it’s not as bad as one would think — water providers plan for years in advance for Colorado’s dry times.

“Colorado is very dependent on Mother Nature for its water supply,” said Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. “You always want to make sure you’re planning for no matter what Mother Nature hands you.”

The South Metro Water Supply Authority is an umbrella organization with 13 water provider members that represent about half of Douglas County and about 10 percent of Arapahoe County.

Currently, Denver Water’s reservoir system, which serves about 1.4 million people in the City of Denver and the surrounding suburbs, is 90 percent full, said Dave Bennett, the director of water resource strategy for Denver Water.

Because of this, which can in part be attributed to the water conservation efforts of area residents, it’s unlikely there will be major water restrictions come this summer, said Peter Goble, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center, a recognized state climate office located in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. The center provides services and expertise related to Colorado’s climate.

However, there is only a 30 percent chance of ending this snow season with above-average or average snowpack, Goble said. And it’s when the mark is missed for years on end that the shortfall becomes a problem, he added.

There should be some level of concern, Goble said, “but it could be much worse.”

One thing that people must keep in mind is that Colorado is a semiarid region, meaning it is not a wet area, but also not a desert, Bennett said. On average, the Denver area receives about 16 inches of precipitation a year.

“This has been an unusual year because the amount of snow falling in different parts of the state has been inconsistent,” Bennett said. But “we’re watching it very closely and can respond as needed to any water shortages we’d be facing.”

Precipitation in Colorado is valuable and variable, Darling said. This means there will be an element of uncertainty when predicting accumulation of precipitation, she added. But consumers should have confidence in their water provider, Darling said.

“Water providers think about water year-round and for years in advance,” she said. They plan carefully “for that uncertain future.”

Overall, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, as of Jan. 30, about 99 percent of Colorado residents live in areas experiencing abnormally dry conditions. The remaining 1 percent — in a small section of Larimer County — live in the only area not in some degree of a drought. The driest areas are to the west and south of the Front Range.

The South Platte Basin, which serves the Front Range from Douglas County northward, is at 85 percent of its average precipitation as of Jan. 19, Goble said.

Although there may not be any water restrictions on consumer usage, there could be other environmental and recreational impacts attributed to the lack of snowfall, Goble said. These could include affecting river activities, such as kayaking or fly fishing because the rivers could be low, and a higher risk for fires.

“Some years are going to be dry, and some years are going to be wet,” said Bart Miller, the director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resource Advocates. “Having drier years like this one raises awareness and helps people take an incentive to water conservation.”

it can also influence the Legislature to try new things, Miller added. For example, he said, look at House Bill 16-1005, also known as the rain barrel bill. It was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May 2016 and allows Colorado homeowners to collect a total capacity of 110 gallons of rainwater to use for outdoor purposes, such as gardening.

“This new law will … connect people with their water usage more closely and encourage water conservation,” said Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Golden, in a previous interview at the time of the bill singing. Danielson was one of the bill’s legislative sponsors.

“In our state, when it comes to water, even small efforts like this will add up to help us protect our most precious resource,” Danielson said.

Overall, people in Colorado have done a good job with being mindful of how much water they use, both indoors and outdoors, Darling said.

And no matter if in a drought or not, it’s important use water wisely all the time, she added.

“What you do today,” Darling said, “influences the amount of water that will be available in the future.”

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