Winter snow is summer water

All the snow Colorado has been getting this winter has made for great skiing, but it’s also good news for summer river flows and local soil moisture.


If you’ve been enjoying this winter’s snow, you’re probably looking forward to getting another use out of it this spring or summer when snowmelt means whitewater in our local rivers.


As the water provider for homes and businesses from Vail through Edwards, we welcome each snowfall. Specifically, we focus on the water content — or “snow water equivalent” (SWE) — of our local snowpack. Statewide SWE is currently about 140 percent of normal and local snow measuring sites are similarly high.


Above normal SWE generally bodes well for summer water supply. However, we need the snowpack to linger well into May. The federal snow measuring site on Vail Mountain normally peaks on April 25, then the melt starts. The Fremont Pass site near the headwaters of the Eagle River normally peaks on May 6, followed by a six-week melt. A slower melt lets water seep into soils — which were parched entering winter due to drought in 2018. While good winter snow should mean good summer river flows, some of that snowmelt will replenish soil moisture and not be part of spring runoff. Winter may be over, but the Eagle River valley needs April (snow) showers to bring May (river) scours.


Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams? Because they serve as the supply for us to provide you with clean, safe drinking water, irrigation water, and fire protection. The amount of water used by our customers affects local stream levels. Since healthy waterways are critical to our natural environment and recreation-based economy, we strive to balance the water needs of our customers with the rivers’ needs.


In July 2018, as drought caused local waterways to drop to low levels, we prioritized river water over customers’ use of water for outdoor purposes. Outdoor areas use much more water than indoor areas and landscape irrigation has a greater impact on streamflows than indoor and fireflow use. Our staff contacted hundreds of customers who were using excessive amounts of water that disproportionately impacted our community’s limited water resource. Nearly all customers who were contacted responded positively, which helped to preserve streamflows.


Water usage tiers and billing rates


One important lesson we learned last summer is that many of our customers don’t know how much water is appropriate for their home. An easy guide is to look at your water bill to see the “usage tier” in which you are billed. We use conservation-oriented tiered water rates to promote efficient use of water. Water use is billed in five tiers with the lowest rate charged in the lowest usage tier (“Tier 1”).


In our tiered water rates, customers are given a water use allowance within each tier based on the size of their property. If a customer’s water use enters a higher tier, the price of water increases for water used in the higher tier.


Customers who use water in Tier 1 have low or normal water use and pay the lowest rate. Water used in higher tiers is progressively more expensive. Water use in Tiers 4 and 5 is considered excessive. We encourage customers whose use is in the higher tiers to contact customer service at 970-476-7480 for tips on reducing waste or they should work with a landscape professional to evaluate irrigation system efficiency and best practices, plus check for leaks.


As winter winds down and you think about summertime activities, plan now for efficient outdoor water use. To protect your investment in your landscape, base it on Colorado’s arid environment to ensure it can withstand dry times … as the aridification of the Colorado River Basin means drier times are the new normal.