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Durango dodges problems with low reservoirs, but is subject to rivers’ whim

City can’t be proactive about drought without significant water storage
The Florida River is Durango’s main water source, but the city can pull from the Animas River when needed. Because of water shortages and a prolonged drought, city officials are looking at using water stored in Lake Nighthorse. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango relies on flowing rivers for its water rather than idle reservoirs, which means Durango is directly dependent on snowpack and runoff.

So what does 2022 have in store for Durango’s water supply?

Jarrod Biggs, who was assistant director of utilities before becoming assistant finance director, said it’s hard to know for sure. But the city has a drought management plan that is tiered in such a way that the city incurs the responsibility of conserving water before residents and businesses become subject to restrictions.

Biggs helped develop the city’s drought plans before he transitioned to his current role.

He said this year is below the median snowpack, meaning less water will be flowing down the Animas and Florida rivers, from which the city receives its water. But snowpack is still better than it was in 2018.

“We kind of live these things year by year,” he said.

Durango faces a different scenario than many other municipalities that rely on large water reservoirs for their supplies, he said. When a municipality saves a gallon of water, for example, that water stays right there in its reservoir until it is needed.

But Durango “lives on the flow” of the Animas and Florida rivers, Biggs said.

On one hand, the city isn’t reliant on reservoirs that may be in short supply of water. But on the other, if the rivers are short on supply because there isn’t enough runoff, the city’s only choice is to clamp down on restrictions and wait out the shortage, he said.

“We have to be a little bit more reactionary than a lot of our partners, other municipalities, that can be a little bit more proactive with the way their water works,” he said.

Water restrictions in Durango aren’t uncommon. Biggs said in the five years he worked in utilities with the city, some sort of restrictions were implemented on the Florida River every year.

The reason is twofold, he said. In August and September, water flows on the Florida River are much lower than they are earlier in the year when more runoff is happening.

“We don’t have enough (water) or there’s not enough wet water in the river to actually satisfy our needs for that river,” he said.

When that occurs, the city switches on its Animas River pumps. To Biggs’ knowledge, there hasn’t been an occasion where the Animas River didn’t have enough water flow to use.

“But our problem with the Animas has been water quality,” he said.

The Missionary Ridge Fire and 416 Fire contaminated the Animas River with ash and debris, and the water quality wasn’t tenable, he said.

Should both supplies be compromised at once, the city would need to initiate watering and water use restrictions to bide time between sufficient water supplies, he said.

The restrictions come in four stages, becoming tighter on city, residential and commercial activities as they escalate. Drought indicators range from snowpack and seasonal water flow to observation of neighboring communities’ supplies and government data.

The city is looking into installing a pipeline that would connect Lake Nighthorse to the College Mesa water-treatment facility, Mayor Kim Baxter said, which would allow Durango to take a more proactive approach to drought management and mitigation.

The full drought management plan can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3jmfFbX


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