Classroom on the mountain: Snow school brings new meaning to higher education

As part of the snow school, instructors and students dig trenches in the snow and slice it up like a seven-layer cake. Each layer tells a different story about the snowpack.

As part of the snow school, instructors and students dig trenches in the snow and slice it up like a seven-layer cake. Each layer tells a different story about the snowpack.

Classroom on the mountain: Snow school brings new meaning to higher education

Where there’s snow, there’s water. Here’s how Denver Water’s engineers dig into Colorado’s most precious resource.

By Jay Adams

High in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, nestled among the pine trees of the Uncompahgre National Forest, is a classroom like no other. There are no desks, no chalkboards and no textbooks.

This is snow school, with a curriculum devoted entirely to studying the properties of Colorado’s most precious resource.

Nathan Elder, a water resource engineer, lives and breathes snow. He tracks how much of it falls, where it falls and when it melts. In the world of managing Denver Water’s water supply, snow is everything.

So it was only fitting that Elder headed back to school in February for some higher education. Hosted by the Colorado Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies near the town of Silverton, the course is geared toward water resource managers and avalanche safety experts.

Elder was happy to take a break from his day job at Denver Water to dig into the piles of snow and information offered in this alpine environment.

“It was great to get a firsthand look at the snow, Elder says. “And seeing the boots-on-the-ground science was really rewarding.”

That part about the boots is no metaphor in this giant San Juan classroom. Elder and his fellow snow school students ventured out on snowshoes to learn the power of the sun on snow and the impact of dust.

Nathan Elder, water resource engineer, stands next to a SNOTEL measuring site near Silverton, where he attended snow school.

Nathan Elder, water resource engineer, stands next to a SNOTEL measuring site near Silverton, where he attended snow school.

“Solar energy has a greater impact on melting than does temperature,” he said. “We saw firsthand the difference between snowmelt on south-facing slopes compared to north-facing slopes.”

Dust on snow determines the “albedo,” a measurement of how much the snow absorbs or reflects the energy from the sun. “If there’s a lot of dust, the snow absorbs more energy and melts faster,” Elder says.

To most people, snow is something to be shoveled or skied. But for Elder, snow is the critical piece of creating water supply operating plans.

The course starts with the true beginning of a snowflake by examining meteorological phenomenon such as El Nino, a warm weather phase from Pacific Ocean currents, and La Nina, the cool weather phase. Both produce temperature change and rainfall.

“We studied the jet stream to learn where the moisture comes from that makes Colorado’s snow,” Elder said.

As part of the class, instructors and students dig trenches in the snow and slice it up like a seven-layer cake. Each layer tells a different story about the snowpack.

“When you look at the layers, you can tell if the snow came from a wet storm or a dry storm,” Elder said. “It gives us a better idea of how the snow is going to melt.”

And that’s critical information for water managers because it helps determine the timing of the runoff — the amount of water that flows into Denver Water’s reservoirs — and when the runoff will peak.

For Elder’s water supply team, the more information they have about the expected runoff, the better they can make good decisions about how much water to release from reservoirs, and when.

The students also checked out the automated snow-monitoring sites — called SNOTEL —managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Seeing the SNOTEL sites firsthand helps me better understand the data they provide and help manage the runoff better,” Elder says.

Going back to class is what experts do, constantly looking to add to their knowledge base.

Elder’s take on snow school? “It was pretty cool, and well worth the trip.”

Money down the drain? Not if you invest in efficiency

Denver Water employee Rick Alvarado installs a high-efficiency showerhead in a Denver area residence, one of 120  on this day!

Rick Alvarado, Denver Water conservation technician, shows how easy it is to install a high-efficiency showerhead during a recent multi-family residential audit.

Money down the drain? Not if you invest in efficiency

5 ways you can reinvest your tax refund to save both water and cash

By Steve Snyder

If you already filed your tax return this year, chances are you’re looking at a nice refund. The IRS tells us that Colorado residents will receive an average federal tax refund of more than $2,700. Sure, you could spend that on a nice vacation or the latest electronic gadget. But if you want to promote water efficiency and reduce your water bill, here are a few products to consider. Many carry the WaterSense label, and rebates are available for some of them.

1. Ultra-high-efficiency toilets: Prices start at $149, and they use up to 50 percent less water than a standard toilet. We know what you’re thinking: You’ll have to flush more with the new toilets to get the same results. But these are not your father’s high-efficiency toilets.

“The technology has improved tremendously in the last several years,” says Denver Water Conservation Manager Jeff Tejral. “With the newer models, you will see better performance and less water use with one flush.”

How can you tell how much water your current toilet uses? First, look for a marking near the seat hinge. Newer toilets have a mark that says 1.6 gpf (gallons per flush). If you don’t see that mark, check the underside of the tank lid or back wall inside the tank for a date stamp. Toilets made before 1982 use more than five gallons per flush!

2. High-efficiency showerheads: Prices start at $6, and like the toilets, these are more efficient than older models. They use about 20 percent less water than a standard showerhead, but you will still get a satisfying shower. (Yes, we remember that “Seinfeld” episode, too.)

By the way, Denver Water teamed up with water providers and legislators to pass a new law for 2014 that will save water by phasing out the sale of less efficient fixtures in Colorado.

The Xeriscape Garden at Denver Water. Xeriscaping is a cost-effective way to save water and beautify your yard.

Denver Water’s Xeriscape Garden has more than 200 species of water-wise plants on display, including trees, shrubs, perennials and ornamental grasses.

3. Weather-based sprinkler controllers: With prices starting at $99, these devices will help you water your landscape based on weather conditions, soil type and plant species. Landscape irrigation accounts for about half of typical residential water use, so understanding the variables that influence outdoor water use will help you become more efficient.

4. Xeriscaping and wildscaping: There are many cost-effective ways to reduce the amount of grass in your yard and replace it with plants native to Colorado. Xeriscaping is a popular option that can cost as little as $69 by adding a few xeric plants to your landscape, or you can transform an entire area of your yard for less than $200.

Wildscaping creates healthy, diverse habitats that include native plants that feed, shelter and nurture wild creatures. The Habitat Hero program offers a guidebook to get you started for just $10.

“This is not simply about using cactus and mulch,” Tejral says. You can have an aesthetically pleasing, yet water-efficient landscape on your property using xeriscaping or wildscaping.”

5. Community gardens: Rather than devoting resources to a garden in your own yard, Denver Urban Gardens invites you to participate in community gardening. Community gardens typically use half the water you would use in your own yard if you had grass in the same area. Denver Urban Gardens plot fees average about $35 per year.

Here’s the good news: Even if do all of these things, you will likely still have money left over to treat yourself to something nice. So what are you waiting for? Efficiency is calling your name!

Waste not: A water-saving guide to fixing leaks

Waste not: A water-saving guide to fixing leaks 

It only takes a couple of minutes to check a bathroom for leaks. A leaking toilet can easily waste 100 to 250 gallons per day. Indoor self-audits – checking the bathroom and other water sources – are easy to perform and will help you find ways to conserve water.

Denver Water’s 2014 audit shows how prevalent leaks are and where to fix and save:


Green beer, not just on St. Paddy’s Day

St. Patrick's Day background[]Green beer, not just on St. Paddy’s Day

The “greening” of the brewing industry, one drop of water at a time

By Travis Thompson

While craft brewing has become synonymous with the city of Denver, one day of the year may catch even the most sophisticated home brewer drinking a beer considered sacrilegious by most microbrew mavens.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, when the green-dyed beer flows like water.

Now Denver Water is hoping to contribute to another kind of “greening” of the beer industry, by helping the more than 50 breweries, tap houses and craft-brew operations in our area find ways to use water more efficiently.

“Craft brewing is an important part of the culture in the metro area and throughout the state,” said Michael Thomas, water conservation technician with Denver Water. “Together, we must identify efficiencies in the industry now, so we don’t have to look for water-use reductions later.”

Thomas has been meeting with local brewers and working with university and industry experts to discover more about the use of water in brewing and to develop efficiency baselines.

“We’ve learned that most of the breweries in our service area are on a smaller scale and don’t have the means to invest in some of the extreme water-saving equipment available,” he said. “But we can help them set achievable goals, create action plans and share their successes.”

Michael Thomas talks about partnering with the brewing industry on water efficiency at Epic Brewing during a Town Hall presentation sponsored by Senator Lucia Guzman (right).

Michael Thomas discusses water efficiency and beer making at Epic Brewing during a Town Hall presentation sponsored by Sen. Lucia Guzman (right).

Opportunities for water efficiency abound for brewers, Thomas said, some as simple as putting a nozzle on the end of the hose when washing equipment. Brewers also can take advantage of Denver Water’s commercial rebate program, where products range from high-efficiency toilets and urinals to cooling towers and commercial ware-washing equipment.

This “greening” effort is catching on throughout the industry. Triple Pundit, an online news site aimed at socially responsible businesses, reported that 24 breweries, including three from Colorado, signed a declaration urging the industry to take greater action on climate change-related risks.

Writer Leon Kaye highlighted the importance of water conservation, saying, “Brewers are increasing their water efficiency, crucial in regions that struggle with drought and water scarcity.”

“This statement is spot on for our situation,” Thomas said. “We don’t want the first time we talk to this industry to be because we are looking for reductions in time of a drought.

“We want to get ahead of that and ensure brewers are part of making Denver’s water system more resilient to drought by being as efficient as possible from the outset.”

So before you drink your next IPA, Helles or Stout, please raise a pint to the next great movement in the craft-brewing world — green beer, without the dye. Cheers!

A tale of two tunnels: How the Moffat Tunnel conquered the divide

The water tunnel is the pilot bore next to the famous railroad tunnel, pictured here in 1956.

The water tunnel runs parallel to the famous railroad tunnel, pictured here in 1956.

A tale of two tunnels: How the Moffat Tunnel conquered the divide 

The Moffat Tunnel changed the way Denver Water provided a reliable water supply to its earliest customers.

By Steve Snyder

This week, 9News and History Colorado provided a historical perspective on the Moffat Tunnel. Eighty-seven years ago, that tunnel changed the way railroad travelers traversed the Continental Divide. But the Moffat Tunnel would provide groundbreaking implications when it came to water delivery as well.

In the early 1920s, the Denver Water Board (as Denver Water was called then) was a fledgling utility searching for additional water to serve a growing city. The water provider had already secured additional water rights from Colorado’s West Slope, but getting that water over the Continental Divide and into existing infrastructure was problematic. Necessity would soon meet innovation.

As David Moffat’s railroad company started construction of a tunnel to provide fast train service through the Rocky Mountains, it also bored a parallel tunnel to be used by their workers to access the main tunnel each day. Denver Water Board members saw potential in that access tunnel, envisioning that it could be reconfigured to bring water from the Fraser River on the West Slope to Denver Water’s South Platte River system on the Front Range.

Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat water tunnel in this 1930 photo.

Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat water tunnel in this 1930 photo.

In 1922, that dream became reality when the Colorado Legislature created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District and Commission to oversee the project. Workers completed the parallel tunnel and partially lined it by June of 1936, and the first waves of water flowed through. Following the severe drought of 1950, the tunnel was enlarged again, and lining was completed in 1958. Initially, the federal government owned the tunnel and leased it back to Denver Water. After 30 years, the tunnel became Denver Water’s property.

Denver Water still relies on the Moffat water tunnel today. The 6.2-mile tunnel can deliver up to 100,000 acre-feet of water a year, providing an important source of water for Denver Water customers. The Moffat Tunnel and its parallel bore are engineering marvels — a credit to the foresight of Denver Water’s founding fathers.*


*Information for this article came from Patricia Nelson Limerick’s book A Ditch in Time – The City the West and Water.

Do you know your snowpack?

Do you know your snowpack?

9 facts about Colorado snowpack: what it is, why it’s important and how we tell how much of it we have.

By Steve Snyder

You may have seen this map from the Natural Resources Conservation Service of Colorado. It shows how much snowpack we have in Colorado this year compared to normal. But what is normal? For that matter, what is snowpack, and what does it have to do with our water supply? Our Denver Water experts answer these questions and more in the slideshow below:


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