Fall is finally providing some relief after a summer when drought sent half the counties in the United States into disaster status. Images of dry river beds, parched fields and kernel-less corn filled airwaves across the county.
La Plata County saw those same images up close as the Animas River shrunk to near-record lows and crops shriveled in parched fields. Many farmers in the western part of the county faced a summer without irrigation water.
But because of water rights that date back to 1882, Durango’s water kept flowing as usual, pumping an average of 128.5 million gallons per month to our thirsty city. That water keeps taps flowing, washing machines running and lawn sprinklers sputtering.
In 2010, each person in Durango used 209 gallons of water per day, down from 232 in 2004.
Commercial users consume 567 million gallons, or about 44 percent of the city’s treated water annually. The city’s 20 top users are a diverse bunch, from hotels to hospitals, car washes to schools. The top user is Fort Lewis College, followed by Escalante Middle School and the La Plata County Fairgrounds. The list of 20 users was based on September 2010 consumption.
As the largest users, these entities have the ability to conserve on a much larger scale, and many are taking steps to do so. At least four of the city’s top treated-water users are pursuing aggressive plans to conserve water in an effort to increase efficiency, save money and preserve an ever-scarcer resource.
Saving drop by drop
As the city’s top user, FLC gulps about 4 million gallons per month.
The treated water is pumped into dorm rooms, flows through the campus’ food-preparation facilities and fills the college’s swimming pool.
All irrigation and landscape watering uses untreated water from the same source as Hillcrest Golf Course.
Because of a performance audit the college undertook last year, its treated-water consumption is expected to decrease by about 5 million gallons, or about 15 percent annually, said Wayne Kjonaas, the college’s director of physical plant services.
During the summer, the college installed low-flow retrofits to all the showers, toilets and water valves in its residence halls. The $334,000 project was part of $9.4 million in energy-efficiency projects the college is pursuing.
Three Leadership for Environmental Development-certified buildings on campus also feature water-efficient appliances, landscaping and irrigation.
Drought-tolerant plants, rainwater harvest and waterless urinals are a few of the best practices featured in Sierra Magazine’s latest annual ranking of America’s greenest universities. The magazine asked six times more water-related questions than last year, which reflects how “critically important” water issues are today, editor Avital Andrews said.
Installing low-flow toilets, sinks and shower heads also is part of the DoubleTree Hotel’s water-conservation efforts. The hotel has implemented numerous resource-efficiency retrofits as part of the silver-level certification it received from Green Seal, a nonprofit third-party certifier. The 159-room hotel is the city’s sixth largest water user, consuming about 800,000 gallons monthly, according to the city’s 2011 water-efficiency management plan.
The hotel expects to save about a million gallons per year by switching all of its toilets to low-flow models while the sink aerators installed in every guest room conserve a gallon-and-a-half per minute, said Kristin Nielsen, the DoubleTree’s director of sales and marketing. Other efforts include $17,000 for new washing machines that will reduce the electricity, chemicals and water use.
The hotel already has lowered its water consumption by 24 percent over the last four years because of water-conservation measures inside and outside the hotel, and Nielson said she would like to get to 35 percent savings in the near future.
The DoubleTree’s green practices help the hotel attract business from eco-conscious tour companies and have received numerous compliments from guests, she said.
Keeping the grass green
Three of the top 10 destinations for treated water in Durango are stretches of fields and parks.
Escalante Middle School’s 9.8 acres of fields and Buckley Park’s 0.8 acre-field consumed about 3 million gallons of water in September 2010.
Buckley’s water use is so high because it hosts many events throughout the year, requires more fertilizer and more water to regrow the grass, Mike Chadwick, Durango School District’s director of facilities, wrote in an email.
La Plata County used about 1.4 million gallons to keep its 32-acre fairground facility hydrated, which includes watering almost 6 acres of baseball fields, irrigating parking-lot landscaping and pumping water to the buildings on the property.
The county has considered using untreated water for many of those uses in the past, but engineering has bogged down that work thus far, said Mark McKibben the county’s director of general services.
The conversation is now back on the table, McKibben said.
“I’m not wild about the fact that we have to use domestic water to do irrigation,” he said.
The school district’s water usage should start to decrease as the district implements a new smart watering system that adjusts watering volume and times according to the weather, said Julie Popp, the district’s spokeswoman.
The computerized systems will control the watering of 18 acres surrounding the district’s in-town buildings. Other water-efficiency measures include installation of low-flow sinks, urinals and toilets. The $419,000 project is expected to save about $50,000 annually in water costs throughout the district’s in-town schools, Popp said. The project should be finished by the end of the year.
Water lost to the unknown
While water conservation can reduce consumption to a point, a large chunk of the city’s water isn’t reaching paying customers. About 20 percent of the city’s treated water is unaccounted for, stemming from meter inaccuracies, unmetered water and leaking pumps.
The city loses revenue for each drop of water it treats and cannot bill, and in its 2011 water-efficiency management plan, the city cited a “keen” interest on reducing unaccounted water.
The Montezuma Water Co. has successfully reduced its water loss by half over the last 20 years, General Manager Mike Bauer said.
The company, a nonprofit owned by members that covers more than 450 square miles, has reduced the amount of treated water loss from 40 percent to between 10 and 15 percent by monitoring and repairing leaks aggressively, Bauer said.
Aging infrastructure is a pressing issue among utilities across the United States, said Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association. The cost of replacing underground water infrastructure across the United States will total more than $1 trillion between now and 2035, according to a report the association published in February.
“In order to meet the coming infrastructure challenge nationwide we’re going to have recover the appropriate value we place on our water systems,” Kail said. “When we truly understand that value, we’ll be in a much better place to invest in the systems in a way that’s necessary to maintain them at levels we have come to expect.”