Durango enjoys the luxury of being just miles away from its water source in the San Juan Mountains. But as prolonged drought becomes an increasing threat in Southwest Colorado, is the community doing enough to conserve its most precious resource?
“I think there is a lot more we could do as a community for promoting water conservation,” said Laurie Dickson, director of Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency. “Because we are so close to our rivers, I think we forget it’s not an unlimited source that just keeps flowing.”
The city of Durango gets its water mostly from the Florida River, a relatively pristine waterway that originates high in the Weminuche Wilderness. When demand gets high, the city also can draw water out of the Animas River.
But increasingly, snowpack in these basins is on the decline.
A report from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization found river flows across the American Southwest declined from 1901 through 2008. It concluded climate change and increasingly frequent and intense droughts likely will reduce water supply in the Colorado River basin.
Other cities, such as Santa Fe and Tucson, have taken drastic measures to make sure no water goes to waste. In Phoenix, for instance, the number of homes with grass landscaping went from 80% in 1978 to just 14% by 2014. The city’s water use has fallen 30% in the last two decades.
“People have become far more efficient with their water use,” Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix water services director, told the Water Use It Wisely campaign. “Basically, we serve the same amount of water in total … today as we did 20 years ago, but we serve 400,000 more people with that same amount of water.”
The city of Durango serves about 6,700 customers and distributes 3.2 million to 3.9 million gallons per day. During peak water use in the summer, that number jumps to about 7 million gallons a day.
Durango’s regulations aren’t the strictest in the Southwest, but it does have water-saving provisions in city codes. There’s a preference for native species, and no more than 50 percent of trees and shrubs at new developments can be high-use plants.
Will the city have to go further?
“Sure,” said City Manager Ron LeBlanc. “But that could be a few years out.”
The fact the city gets its water from two river sources puts it in a favorable spot, LeBlanc said. And the city purchased water from Lake Nighthorse for more insurance.
During extreme drought, such as last year, the city prefers to work with the top-10 water users rather than deal with thousands of customers. The approach is highly effective, LeBlanc said, cutting water use by 10% to 12%.
But there is a growing movement to set Durango up to use less water.
Eva Montane, president of Columbine Landscapes, said she attended a course in March that focused on how to sculpt a property to maximize the use of rain, through methods such as building berms and directing rainwater toward gardens.
“To me, it’s just a no-brainer this approach makes sense,” she said. “Even if we don’t actively have water shortages, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.”
Montane applied the idea at Durango Outdoor Exchange’s new location on north Main Avenue. Taylor Criswell, store manager, said the new design eliminated the need for a sprinkler system and cut the water bill.
“We don’t have to keep using water over and over again,” he said. “Rainwater is channeled to where it needs to go to water the plants.”
Dickson said 4CORE has been big on getting rain barrels out to residents since Colorado legalized harvesting rainwater in 2016. Since then, the nonprofit has distributed 400 barrels, not including those made in a do-it-yourself workshop.
“It’s common science and knowledge what’s going to happen in our area in spite of the bountiful winter we’ve had,” she said. “We’re going to be moving toward drier and drier conditions in the Southwest, and water is a finite resource we’re going to see less of.”
Bayfield also doesn’t have standards or landscaping requirements. But annual water restrictions from May 15 to Sept. 15 has residents on an every other day system for watering lawns.
“That allowed us to make it through last year,” said Town Manager Chris LaMay. “We were getting rather nervous, but some afternoon monsoons came in and saved us.”
In Bayfield and Durango, the more water you use, the more you pay. LeBlanc believes the sheer cost of using water will eventually encourage residents to cut back on use.
“The pricing of our water is such that it may make sense for homeowners to consider whether they need that much grass at their house,” he said. “And I think the public needs to be vigilant. There’s a lot of small changes you can make in your lifestyle that can result in some appreciable savings for the whole system.”
LeBlanc added that with climate change, Southwest Colorado is likely to see more wildfires. He said impacts from fire to water quality is one of the city’s major concerns when thinking about future water security, which is why it is important to be able to draw from multiple sources.