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Relax, reservoir not drying up

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Durango Utilities Director Steve Salka says maintenance on the reservoir should be completed by April 28, and it will take several days to fill it back up.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

You know people are anxious about the drought and the upcoming forest fire season when they call the city of Durango in April to complain about the low water level in the city reservoir on College Mesa.

Residents of the Hillcrest neighborhood have a clear view of the fenced-off lake from their backyard decks and rear windows.

They have been alarmed that the lake, which normally is 25 feet deep, has been lowered to 18½ feet, exposing muddy rocks on the shoreline and letting green vegetation bloom along the newly exposed reservoir rim.

Steve Salka, the city’s utility director, said people have asked, “How can you let all that water run out? We won’t have any water for the summer. ... What are you doing? Is it a leak?

“Everybody is really concerned,” Salka said. “I think they’re worried because they know we haven’t had a lot of snow this year.”

Chill out, everybody. Salka said he has this under control.

“There’s actually a method to our madness,” he said.

The water level was lowered purposely to allow for reconstruction of the overflow and out-fall, or the reservoir’s faucet and drain in an analogy with a sink.

What really would be madness would not be doing any sort of preventive maintenance, Salka said.

Case in point is the 7.2 million-gallon tank just below the reservoir that allows time for the chlorine and other cleaning chemicals to dissipate so the water is safe to drink.

When the tank is painted later this year to prevent rusting, it will be the first maintenance work since the 1970s, which was the last time Salka could find a record of any work done on the tank.

Salka is concerned because the tank’s life expectancy is 50 years. It was built in 1954.

“We’re already to the 60-year point,” said Salka, who is about nine months into his job. “Here we are in 2013. What were we thinking? Shame on us. The city put all of their eggs in one basket and did not take care of the basket.

“Now I am freaking out because I know I need to do some maintenance on it,” Salka said. “When I get enough funds together, I need to empty it and build another tank” to allow for work on the older tank.

This year, Salka plans to phase out the cleaning chemicals in favor of a reverse-osmosis system that will purify the water more naturally.

“Oh, I am going to get that done,” Salka said. “It makes our community (more) safe. (The new system is) not something that’s going to leak into the river.”

Within the last 10 days, Salka slowly drained 31 million gallons from the reservoir. The lake’s maximum capacity is 74 million gallons.

The displaced water has gone to fill storage tanks around town for firefighting, a pond by the reservoir and ponds on the Hillcrest Golf Club course. Some of the excess water also was used to irrigate city parks.

Like the downtown sidewalks and business renovations, Salka wants to complete work in the lake before the onset of the busy summer season. He’s given the contractors an April 28 deadline, timed before homeowners start watering their lawns.

During the winter when there’s much less demand for water, the lake is fed by a 9-mile pipe connecting it to the Florida River as part of a gravity-controlled system.

In the high-demand months of summer, the reservoir must be supplemented with water from the Animas River, pumped underground from Santa Rita Park. As part of the digestive cycle, water eventually is returned to the river once it has been treated at the wastewater treatment plant.

“What we take from the river, we give back,” Salka said.

Last year, Salka increased the volume of the water pumped from the river by cleaning out the wet-well at the pump house. The well had gotten plugged from years of buildup of silt and mud. With more room in the well, the volume of water increased from 3 million gallons a day to 5 million gallons a day, Salka said.

As part of his reservoir maintenance project, Salka wants to improve the capability to receive water, especially because the city eventually will have access to the Animas-La Plata Project, too, which already feeds Lake Nighthorse, a regional reserve managed by the federal government.

Salka anticipates the A-LP water would be used as a backup in emergency situations. Its river intake is much lower than the pumps at Santa Rita in case the rivers run low.

For the city to access the A-LP system, it would have to drill a hole deep enough to go underneath the Animas to connect pipe to the A-LP intake system on other side of the river from Santa Rita park.

The pumps at A-LP are so much stronger than the city pumps that it’s sort of like comparing a fire hose to a garden hose.

The ALP pumps water so quickly that “you can’t (manually) turn them on and off,” Salka said. “It must be done electronically.”

So Salka wants to build a sturdier faucet to withstand the increased water pressure coming from Santa Rita and, eventually, A-LP.

“My fear is that this whole thing could cave in, and then we’re not pumping water at all. Shame on us if we’re not taking care of it. Now we don’t have any water for the summer,” he said.

“If we’re using 6 million gallons a day, (the reservoir) is not going to last very long,” Salka said.

Plus, the city must fix a leaky overflow or drain system, replacing a concrete structure that normally is under water, he said.

“This is strategically planned,” Salka said. “Once they’re done working, in three days, I should have the reservoir up to the level it should be.”

Salka always likes to anticipate problems before they become bigger problems.

One worry is about having to fix a leak in the underground pipes that connect the reservoir to the ponds on Hillcrest golf course.

“Golfers would really be upset with us if we ever had to dig up the golf course,” he said. “Now that’s scary.”


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