Water restrictions in California could impact Denver Water customers, too

Water restrictions in California could impact Denver Water customers, too

Colorado, California and five other western states all draw water from the Colorado River. How each state manages this resource connects all of us.

Denver Water's Cheesman Reservoir during the 2002 drought. Colorado is all too familiar with the kind of drought California is experiencing right now.

Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir during the 2002 drought – a stark reminder that Colorado is always susceptible to the kind of drought gripping California right now.

By Steve Snyder

If you haven’t heard about the drought in California, just Google “California drought” and scroll through the images of cracked earth, snowless ski resorts and nearly empty lakes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called it the worst drought on record. Recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown called for mandatory water restrictions in the state.

But why should Denver Water customers care? Sure we’ve seen our share of droughts in recent years, but right now our water supply is in pretty good shape. And Denver Water has had rules in place for years to help customers use water efficiently, and they have responded. We are trying to make water efficiency a way of life here in Colorado.

Make no mistake, Colorado and California are deeply connected when it comes to water use. In fact, Colorado and California are two of seven western states that rely heavily on the Colorado River for their water supply. It’s all because of the Colorado River Compact. (We have created our own simple summary of the Colorado River compact here.)

So even though we’re not facing the same restrictions as California, the ongoing drought demands our attention — and our action.

“We were extremely fortunate that the areas in the Colorado River Basin that supply water to our system saw near-normal snowpack levels this year,” said Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead. “But we can’t be complacent. Recent history has shown us we are highly susceptible to drought as well.

“Not only do we have to plan for our own water supply, but we have to work with other states in the Colorado River Basin to find solutions to the water supply problems we all share.”

Denver Water is working with California and other states to reduce demand on the Colorado River through a program called the Colorado River System Conservation Program. It’s yet another way Colorado and California are connected in their water use.

So the next time you read about water restrictions in California, falling lake levels in Utah or lawn removal incentives in Las Vegas, understand that those water issues affect Coloradans and Denver Water customers in some way. We truly are all connected.

Why you and your kids should care about the drought in California

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922.  (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922.
(Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Why you and your kids should care about the drought in California

A father’s attempt to explain why California water restrictions, western growth and dropping reservoir levels in Utah should matter to all of us in Colorado.

By Steve Snyder

When people find out I work at Denver Water, they ask me one question more than any other: “Why do we let water flow out of Colorado to California and other states?”

The short answer is: The Colorado River Compact mandates that California gets its share. But that leads to a longer explanation about the Colorado River Compact, one of many complex laws that govern how water is divided among western states.

Complicated or not, we should all understand how drought in California — and Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate to cut water use by 25 percent — have a direct impact on the water we use in Colorado. With that in mind, I tried to boil this down for an audience with no prior knowledge or interest in the subject: My teenage daughter.

I’m changing her name to Abby so she doesn’t hate me for sharing her answers with the world.

Me: Sweetie, have you ever heard of the Colorado River Compact?

Abby: You mean a compact like for makeup?

Me: (Sighing) No, a compact is an agreement between states. The Colorado River Compact is an agreement between seven western states that share water from the Colorado River Basin.

Abby: Basin? And you say I talk in a foreign language!

Me: A basin is where water drains into a common area. The Colorado River Basin is the region where the Colorado River drains.

Abby: Wait. If it’s the Colorado River, how does it flow through other states? Isn’t it Colorado’s river?

Me: Good question. While the river originates in Colorado, the water does not belong to Colorado. All seven states have claims to the water. That’s how the compact came about.

Abby: How can other states claim water from Colorado? That’s not fair.

Me: Western water law is based on something called prior appropriation. It … STOP MAKING THAT FACE! It just means whoever puts the first claim on an amount of water for what is called “beneficial use” has the right to use it, regardless of the original location of the water. Think of it as “first in time, first in right.”

Abby: Speaking of time, you’re rambling again, Dad.

The seven states in the Colorado River Basin were divided into the upper and the lower basin states for river water allocation purposes. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

The seven states in the Colorado River Basin were divided into the upper and the lower basin states for river water allocation purposes. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Me: Stay with me. Back in the 1920s, the states in the lower basin of the Colorado River — California, Arizona and Nevada — were growing rapidly, and they had the oldest rights to the water. The other four states in the upper basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — got nervous about having enough water for their own futures. The seven states couldn’t agree on who would get how much of the Colorado River’s flows, so in 1922 they negotiated an agreement, or compact, that divided the region into those same upper and lower basins.

Abby: Cool. So they divided up the water evenly among the states and they all lived happily ever after. The end! Great story, Dad! Goodnight.

Me: It’s 4 in the afternoon. Get back here! Under the agreement, the upper basin states must allow a specific amount of Colorado River water to flow to the lower basin states over a running 10-year average. The upper basin states store that water in Lake Powell in Utah. The lake is like a big savings account of water to meet that obligation. But now we get to the problems.

Abby: Let me guess. There’s not enough water in the river for everybody.

Me: Exactly! It turns out the 1920s were a very wet period in the Colorado River Basin. Essentially, the compact allocated more water than the river would normally produce. Then you add in a lot more growth in the lower basin states and the drought in the region for the past decade or more, and you get … wait for it … one giant bathtub ring!

Abby: Finally! We get to some cool stuff!

Me:  See?! But it’s not really cool. I told you the upper basin states store water for the lower basin states in Lake Powell. But because of the drought and continued increased use by the lower basin states, the water levels at Lake Powell have dropped dramatically in the last decade. Just look at this photo. You see that white discoloring in the rock where the water levels used to be? Lake Powell is at only 45 percent of its capacity.

Abby: So what happens if the lake level continues to drop?

Me: It could trigger what’s called a “compact call.” If the upper basin states can’t supply the amount of water mandated in the compact to the lower basin states, the upper basin states would have to restrict their own usage of Colorado River water to fulfill their obligations.

Abby: And what happens to Colorado?

Me: Well, Denver Water gets about half of its water from the Colorado River. If we lose half of our water supply, you can see how that would cause significant problems.

Abby: Is there anything we can do about it?

Me: We’re trying. Denver Water is actually working with other water providers in the Colorado River Basin through an agreement called the Colorado River System Conservation Program.

Abby: None of these things have simple names, do they?

Me: Point taken. The program is trying to find temporary, voluntary ways to reduce demand on the Colorado River, so more water can go into our bank account in Lake Powell. It’s a much better alternative than having mandated reductions.

Abby: So is this why you yell at me for taking long showers?

Me: Sort of. Every little thing we can do to use water efficiently helps. Particularly in the western United States, we are all connected by our water use.

Abby: Congratulations Dad. Despite your best efforts, I think I learned something.

Me: Thank you … I think.

When it comes to saving water, Denver Zoo is a roaring success

Denver Zoo is making strides to use more recycled water.

Denver Zoo is making strides to use more recycled water.

When it comes to saving water, Denver Zoo is a roaring success

Improvements will save 5.2 million gallons of water a year — and they’re not done yet

By Jay Adams

Q. How do you calculate the gallons of water an elephant uses?

 A. Very carefully.

Calculating water consumption, and looking for ways to reduce it, is no small task. To find the answers, the Denver Zoo turned to Denver Water’s conservation team, which provided an ultrasonic water meter to track water use on everything from antelopes to zebras. 

The meter connects to pipes and measures flow rate and water consumption throughout the zoo. Data from the meter will be used in an audit to identify inefficient operations, pinpoint leaks and allow the zoo to set efficient water-use goals.

Denver Water's conservation team toured Denver Zoo in March to learned about water-saving efforts.

Denver Water’s conservation team toured Denver Zoo in March to learn about water-saving efforts.

“Water conservation is part of our mission to secure a better world for our animals,” said Jennifer Hale, Denver Zoo director of safety and sustainability. “We want to keep resources viable for a long time.”

The zoo has saved 2.5 billion gallons in the past 15 years. Last year, Denver Water provided the zoo with $43,000 as part of the water-saving incentive program and is now helping with the water-use audit.

The zoo is using the money from the incentive program to convert the irrigation system around the giraffe barn from potable water to recycled water. A new pump and filtration system will clean and recycle water in a pond and maintain the water quality; a high-efficiency toilet pilot program will determine the best fixtures for such a high-use area.

Jennifer Hale, Denver Zoo director of safety and sustainability, talks with Denver Water's conservation team at the Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit. The ponds are filled with recycled water .

Jennifer Hale, Denver Zoo director of safety and sustainability, talks with Denver Water’s conservation team at the Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit. The ponds are filled with recycled water .

Those projects will save an estimated 5.2 million gallons of water annually. “The zoo has made enormous strides cutting water use, and it is very exciting to see the zoo now calculating its water efficiency,” said Mark Cassalia, a Denver Water conservation specialist.

Hale said 35 percent of the zoo’s water comes from Denver Water’s Recycling Plant. Recycled water is wastewater treated to a standard suitable for irrigation, commercial and industrial uses.

Relying on recycled water reduces the demand on Denver Water’s reservoirs for drinking water. The zoo has plans to expand its use of recycled water in the future.

Water efficiency is a part of the cultural philosophy at the zoo and fits with its overall mission. “Every person on staff plays a role looking for ways to be more efficient — little things really can make a difference,” Hale said. “We can’t tell our visitors to be stewards of the environment if we are not doing it ourselves.”

And just in case you were wondering, your typical elephant uses about 20 to 30 gallons of water every day!

Starting small, thinking big

Ezzie Sauter Baca, water treatment technician (left), and Andrea Song, water treatment engineer (right), discuss an experiment using the pilot treatment plant’s replica filters. The filter tubes are filled with anthracite and granular activated carbon to strain out particles from the water.

Ezzie Sauter Baca, water treatment technician (left), and Andrea Song, water treatment engineer (right), discuss an experiment using the pilot treatment plant’s replica filters. The filter tubes are filled with anthracite and granular activated carbon to strain out particles from the water.

Starting small, thinking big

Miniature treatment plant helps engineers reduce cost, footprint of new facility

By Jay Adams

How do you design a new water treatment plant that will cost several hundred million dollars and last more than 50 years — and make sure you get it right?

Start small.

One of Denver Water’s most important construction projects in three decades begins in a small room tucked away inside the 78-year-old Moffat Water Treatment Plant.

There, in a storage room 18 feet wide and 37 feet long, engineers and plant operators are running tests on a miniature version of a treatment facility that will eventually be the prototype for the real thing.

The results of those tests will be used to design the North System Renewal Water Treatment Plant at Denver Water’s Ralston Reservoir site near Golden, Colo. The new facility is expected to be built in the next 10 years.

The scaled-down version of the plant consists of two main components: a large tank that replicates the pretreatment process and four large tubes that filter the water.

“It really is a cutting-edge system,” said Andrea Song, pilot plant manager and water treatment engineer.

The pilot treatment plant replicates the processes used by a full-size water treatment plant. The pilot plant consists of two main components that replicate the pretreatment and filtering processes.

The pilot treatment plant replicates the processes used by a full-size water treatment plant. The pilot plant consists of two main components that replicate the pretreatment and filtering processes.

Song, along with water treatment technician Ezzie Sauter Baca, are among the engineers and operators running the tests. “It’s neat to see the treatment process happen before your eyes — usually it’s all underground,” Sauter Baca said. The pretreatment and filtering processes take about 3.5 hours in the pilot plant compared to 10 to 16 hours in the actual plant.

Song has designed water treatment plants across the country and is passionate about doing it right. “We want the most cost-effective design, but a design that also will stand the test of time,” she said.

They’re using the test model to determine the right size and flow rate for the new treatment plant’s filters. Filters are large concrete structures filled with sand and anthracite coal or granular activated carbon. The materials strain particles from the water, a critical final step in producing high-quality water.

The biggest challenge: trying to demonstrate how much water per square foot the filters can process in a minute. The current treatment plant has 28 filters. Determining the correct flow rate and filter material is essential in designing the number and size of the filters in the new plant, according to Zack Alabbasi, Moffat Water Treatment Plant supervisor.

“If we can build filters that can process more water, we won’t have to build as many. That means the footprint of the new plant will be smaller and cheaper to build,” Alabbasi said.

Moffat Water Treatment Plant has 28 filters. The tests using the pilot plant will determine the size and number of filters needed in the new North System Renewal Treatment Plant.

Moffat Water Treatment Plant has 28 filters. The tests using the pilot plant will determine the size and number of filters needed in the new North System Renewal Treatment Plant.

Denver Water purchased the pilot plant for $368,000, but Alabbasi said that building fewer filters could end up saving tens of millions of dollars in construction costs at the new facility.

Once the experiments at Moffat are complete, engineers and operators will use the pilot plant to test various water treatment strategies at all four of Denver Water’s treatment facilities.

The experiments will make the new facility more flexible for future regulations and better equipped to handle changes in water quality.

“The impact of climate change, pine beetles, floods and wildfires is changing our water supply, and we need to be ready for those changes,” Song said. “When people look back in 50 years at what we did today, we want them to say we made the right decisions. Our customers depend on us for great water, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Take a virtual tour of Denver Water’s treatment process.

 

March was dry, but reservoirs are high

March was dry, but reservoirs are high

What it takes to manage water supply in Colorado’s fickle climate

By Stacy Chesney

Riddle me this:

If Denver Water relies on snow to fill its reservoirs, and most of March — typically the snowiest month of the year — is one of the driest in Colorado’s history, how can Denver’s water supply remain in good shape?

Is the answer:

Smart planning? Efficient water use? Luck?

Actually, it is all of the above. It may seem counterintuitive given the low snowpack levels across Colorado, but as Bob Steger, Denver Water’s manager of raw water supply, explains, Mother Nature, smart planning and customer water use have all factored into Denver’s strong water supply despite the recent conditions.

We wanted to delve into this topic a little deeper, so we asked Bob to answer a few more questions about what it takes to manage water supplies in the face of Colorado’s ever-changing weather conditions.

Elements of a strong supply image

Even if you don’t watch the news, it is no secret that snowpack across the state is low. Is Denver Water’s system different?

Denver Water can only capture water from snow that is above our reservoirs. For us, that means the snow in the Upper Colorado River and Upper South Platte River basins. We’re fortunate that these areas above our system are some of the wetter areas in the state this year. The snowpack in these areas is below normal, but not by much.

 

It was just a couple of years ago that we were facing a severe drought. Why are our reservoirs in good shape right now?

In short, rain, snow, water use and planning all played a role.

In 2013, we were on the tail end of a severe drought. While the massive rainfall that occurred that September was devastating to a lot of the state, we were able to capture much of that water, which helped our reservoirs recover before heading into that winter.

We’ve been fortunate ever since, with above-average snowfall and timely precipitation through February 2015.

But it’s not just about the weather. Our reservoir levels are directly related to how much water our customers use. Last summer, customers used 14 percent less water compared with recent years. Seemingly small steps like shutting off sprinklers in the rain help keep water in our reservoirs.

 

Does this mean you aren’t worried about the dry conditions? 

In this state, anything can happen. We saw severe drought and epic flooding in just the past four years. Because the weather and climate in Colorado are so variable, we will never be in a position where we have enough water to waste.

Just because our supply is in good shape right now doesn’t mean what’s happening elsewhere in the state doesn’t matter. Dry conditions outside of our collection area can affect our water supply. We have to pay attention to what happens downstream of our facilities because if a downstream user has a senior (legal) right to the water, we may not be able to capture it in our reservoirs. We must stay vigilant to ensure our reservoirs are positioned to maximize the water we can store when it’s available.

 

So there you have it. In the end, there really is no riddle. While we can’t control the weather patterns or conditions, we can make sure that we all do our part to use water efficiently. Because every drop you save today will become a drop we need a different day.

For tips and tools to become more water-efficient in your home or business, visit denverwater.org/conservation. And, make sure to review the annual watering rules before irrigation season begins.

Six gallons per flush? That’s too much water, say Bear Creek students

Bear Creek High School's cheerleading squad show's off their water-saving cheer: It's all connected.

The Bear Creek High School cheerleaders chant their water-saving fight song, “Hashtag: It’s all connected.”

Six gallons per flush? That’s too much water, say Bear Creek students

High schoolers team up with Denver Water and Denver Zoo to reduce water consumption by 16 percent.

By Travis Thompson

The Bear Creek High School gym floor rattles with a drumline cadence. A marching band steps into motion. Four cheerleaders fly into the air with signs leading the chant, “Hashtag: It’s all connected.”

This is the Bear Creek High School water-saving fight song.

Through the Denver Water and Denver Zoo Water and Sustainability Program, Bear Creek students took a hands-on approach to learn about water issues and used that knowledge to do something positive in their school.

“We’re the first school to go about this project,” said student Hunter Trujillo. “We’re kind of like the pioneers.”

By stepping away from the textbook and working directly with sustainability experts, the students reduced their school’s water consumption by 16 percent through water-efficient upgrades like switching out faucet aerators and showerheads. The class also identified larger water-saving opportunities that could save the school more than $30,000 in the future.

“It’s so amazing when you get to inspire students to a level where they really want to take action in their own worlds,” said Matt Bond, Denver Water youth education program manager. “The students really are empowered to apply their knowledge, be leaders and make change — real, meaningful change.”

Watch their journey, and see why these student’s chant “It’s all connected” when it comes to water in the West:

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.”

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