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Durango survey offers insight into wide-ranging water issues

Questionnaire invites community feedback about numerous topics
The city reservoir is where water from the Florida and Animas rivers is stored before being treated at Durango’s water treatment plant on College Mesa. Storage and redundancy are two big issues facing Durango’s water supply.

Durango community members have a chance to weigh in on water issues – such as supply, quality and conservation – as the city of Durango updates its future water plans.

Water is not a guarantee for Durango. Residents spend the winters wondering if the mountains will see enough snow and the summers gauging river heights and the likelihood of wildfires. The lack of backup systems and water storage weigh on city leaders and experts.

City staff members aim to complete water master plan revisions in June, and the community has until April 5 to weigh in on the discussion through an online survey.

“We knew we wanted some public outreach and user sentiments on how people think about water,” said Jarrod Biggs, Durango’s assistant utilities director. “This one (survey) is a baseline. ... What do people think about water? We think we know, but this is an opportunity to actually check with the community.”

The water sentiment survey, found at durangogov.org/vch, dives into some basic and big questions facing Durango and its residents.

Jarrod Biggs, Durango’s assistant utilities director, launched a community survey to hear what residents think about water issues, such as quality, quantity and conservation. Community members have until April 5 to complete the survey.

As of Monday, 115 community members had offered feedback about issues such as the reliability and safety of their tap water, water rates, environmental issues facing Durango’s water, water conservation and water shortages.

Those responses will help guide city staff members as they make revisions to the water master plan, Biggs said.

Only 40 responses, those who are registered for the Virtual City Hall, were visible to the public Monday. So far, the vast majority were happy with the reliability, safety and quality of their water service – although they were slightly less enthusiastic about their trust in the government to handle infrastructure and regulation.

But the majority also said they felt somewhat or very vulnerable about the possibility of shortages. They’re worried about the impacts that environmental factors, such as wildfire ash, mine spills and drought, might have on the supply.

Those concerns are valid, said Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College. When asked about the biggest issue facing Durango’s water supply, she said: climate change.

“There’s a critical connection between increased temperatures and decreased supply,” she said. “Supplies are being used to their limit already. If temperatures increase, and that results in a decrease in supply, that stretches the resource even more.”

Evidence is accumulating that increased temperatures are tied to environmental impacts on water, such as declining stream flows or more prevalent wildfires, the ash from which can affect water quality and supply, she said.

“As we know in Colorado, we have these crazy extremes in our water years,” Richard said. “Designing a system that is resilient to those kinds of extremes and that kind of variability is critical. One of the ways to build that resilience is to have storage.”

Stored water allows the city to have more flexibility in the timing of when it distributes water to the public. But it quickly gets complicated. Durango stores water in a city reservoir and owns water in Lake Nighthorse. But no pipes connect Lake Nighthorse to the city’s drinking water treatment facility at College Mesa.

That piping would allow Durango to have redundancy, or a duplicate system, in case something goes wrong, like a serious wildfire.

But all of that water would still flow through one water treatment facility, which would also need to be addressed for the city’s water system to be more resilient, Richard said.

“If something were to happen with that one system, we don’t have any redundancies,” she said.

The city is aware of this issue, said Biggs and Mayor Dean Brookie. City Council and the city’s infrastructure advisory board will meet March 24 to discuss costs and infrastructure plans.

“We know there’s less water in the rivers. One of these days, we’re going to want to use and need to use that Lake Nighthorse option,” Biggs said.

The city of Durango will consider water treatment facility alternatives, such as a new facility at Ridges Basin Dam, March 24.

Brookie also listed accessing Lake Nighthorse as one of the top issues facing Durango’s water system, alongside environmental factors.

“There is some consideration of not building a new water treatment facility,” Brookie said. “I think that would be incredibly short-sighted for the city of Durango, not only for our current residents but also future growth opportunities.”

But residents also have a role to play, particularly when it comes to drought, said Brookie and Richard.

Durango’s water use quadruples in the summer because of increased irrigation, primarily because of the city of Durango, the Durango School District 9-R and Fort Lewis College, Brookie said.

“We’ve really got to figure out ways for the ‘Big 3’ to do a better job of recycling water and have more unique drought-resistant landscapes in the future,” he said.

In urban areas, the biggest water use is for outdoor watering, Richard said. For homeowners, that might mean different styles of xeriscaping and changing irrigating practices.

According to the survey results so far, community members are supportive of the idea – 90% preferred it over other ways of reducing water use.

“We’re all in this together,” Richard said. “To achieve a resilient water system, we all need to play our part.”


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