By Katia Meyer, 2018 Youth Water Leadership Program Intern
I spent last summer working at a summer camp in Connecticut, where I experienced weekly thunderstorms that filled the nearby river so high that it often overflowed as it made its way towards the lake. This could not have been more different from what many people experienced this past summer with the Lake Christine Fire and drought induced water restrictions. When I returned to Colorado and heard these stories from my friends and neighbors, I was reminded of what a precious resource water is. I became curious as to whether or not water restrictions were an effective tool for mitigating the impact of drought on residents and the surrounding ecosystems, and this became the focus of my research project for the 2018 Healthy Rivers Youth Water Summit. My main focus was identifying the differences in how each local town or city handles water restrictions. I was also curious about how residents view water restrictions and whether they adhere to them, and well as their general level of understanding of our watershed, the Colorado River Compact, and the effects of drought. To do this, I interviewed at least one water manager or similar person from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs. I learned a lot about water restrictions, and I hope this information can help both water leaders and residents gain some new insight.
One of the most interesting things I discovered was the unique way each town or city makes decisions about when to enact water restrictions. In Aspen, the city utility makes the decision and reports to the city council which currently has 5 members. Similarly, the Carbondale utilities director makes the call and is advised by public works, the town manager, and the board of trustees. Glenwood Springs’s City Council decides when to put water restrictions in place (or not to, as was the case this summer). In Basalt, water restrictions are simply put in place yearly from April 1 to October 31 regardless of the water level. Finally, Snowmass Village has 5 board members, advised by an environmental advisory board, who make decisions, although they have a permanent Stage 1 restriction in place. Although each place has a slightly different decision making process, they generally look at the same factors including snowpack, precipitation, consumer demand trends, drought forecasts, and water levels in the rivers or water treatment facilities. They also put similar restrictions in place. This typically focuses on reduced watering of lawns and parks, often on an alternate day watering schedule.
One common misconception about water restrictions is that most people don’t actually follow water restriction guidelines, or that it’s pointless to follow them. This is very untrue. All of the water managers I interviewed said that most people in their towns followed the water restrictions, and that it made a huge difference in the amount of water in their reservoir, well, streams, or other water source. Most towns have some kind of monitoring system so they can see if people are responding to the water restriction and using less water. For example, Snowmass Village, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs all use water meters to track consumption. In most places, neighbors encourage each other to do the right thing and adhere to the guidelines, so the town doesn’t often have to step in. If they do need to enforce guidelines, there is typically a graduated system of fines a person can incur for repeated violations.
Another misconception is that restrictions mean there isn’t enough water to go around. In reality, you will most likely always have enough water for domestic uses like drinking, showering, brushing your teeth, and washing dishes. Things like watering parks, lawns, or golf courses are unnecessary and use a lot of water, so just reducing those uses saves the town a lot of water. One of the best things citizens can do to help their town conserve water is to stay informed about drought, the Colorado River Compact and other water laws, and how climate change impacts ecosystems like the riparian habitat in local streams and rivers.
Although the decision makers, requirements for enacting restrictions, and methods of enforcement vary from place to place, the goal is generally the same. Everyone wants to ensure that their community and surrounding ecosystem has the water it needs to sustain itself. All of the water leaders I spoke to agreed that increased education is an important factor in getting people to follow drought restrictions and be good stewards of the river. I would also recommend ongoing communication between communities in the Roaring Fork Valley. I think that sharing information between towns and cities could be an extremely valuable tool for increasing the effectiveness of drought restrictions. By hearing what works and what doesn’t, water leaders can avoid repeating each other’s mistakes and make faster progress towards a healthier and more sustainable watershed.