Water Exiting the 5.2 Mile Homestake Tunnel Under the Continental Divide (starting its 100+ mile trip to Colorado Springs’ water supply)

Oh, where to start?! Well, I can start with this – most of the state of Colorado is now classified as being in an extreme drought. Droughts are long-term events, and we are still seeing the effects of the previous drought which peaked back in 2002. Have you noticed the many trees that have been cut down in the medians downtown in Colorado Springs? The city cut off watering those tree medians in 2002-2004 and many of those trees have died since then (and others are still in the process of doing so). I fear we will all lose many more trees over the next few years as a result of our current drought.

Because of drought last year, many Colorado farmers lost their crops. And if you happen to buy Colorado-produced beef, you may have noticed prices increased significantly. Ranchers had to sell off cattle because there was not enough water to produce food for them, so the remaining cattle were processed and sold at higher prices. Even if you buy beef and produce from outside of Colorado, you may have noticed higher prices because Colorado is far from alone in experiencing drought. The middle of the country is in drought too, with many farmers having skipped planting their winter wheat for this season (watch those flour prices for evidence of this).

So what does this mean for us in 2013? Let’s look at some of our current water facts. Officially, Colorado Springs received 8.11 inches of precipitation last year. That is less than half of “average,” and it as been awhile since we’ve seen that average. Precipitation is what affects demand for water in our area, in terms of outdoor watering. Precipitation in our area is not what affects supply, however. This may seem like good news until we learn that the mountain snow that we depend on for most of our water supply is also lacking. (Remember that much of the entire state is now in extreme drought….that includes snowfall.)

Just how bad is it? Each winter I follow the weather information posted by Billy Barr at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, just north of Crested Butte. He’s been recording weather data there for 40 years(!). He says the average snowfall for RMBL for January is 14 inches, and as of today (January 25), they have received 7 inches, making this January a candidate for the lowest January snowfall he’s recorded. Last year, the snowfall season was the 3rd driest he’s recorded overall, and this year is looking like it could beat that record. (Sadly, this may mean another bleak year for the big Crested Butte Wildflower Festival.)

So it isn’t too surprising to hear that the reservoirs from which we draw our water supply are holding well-below-average amounts of water at this point, with little additional snowmelt being promised this spring. It is looking pretty bad.

We’re currently under voluntary winter water restrictions – meaning we should only be watering once per month (which is actually essential!! If you haven’t read our encouragement to winter water, please read this post: “Winter Watering Revisited“). And by “WE,” I mean those who buy their water from Colorado Springs Utilities. Customers of other water providers are surely under similar restrictions as well. Come April 1, Colorado Springs Utilities water customers will be under stricter, mandatory watering restrictions. If the snow situation in the mountains does not improve, it is highly likely we’ll be restricted to watering two days per week, before 10:00 a.m. and after 6:00 p.m. About ten years ago, we were under watering restrictions, but we had three days per week, which hardly felt like true watering restrictions. There will be all sorts of details to pay attention to – such as we’ll likely be able to water using drip irrigation and soaker hoses whenever we want (at least to start).

People will be making choices in their landscapes. Lawns will shrink or disappear, and some will look to different turf choices if they still want a lawn. Please don’t give in to the tempting “easy out” of killing the lawn and covering it with plastic topped with river rock! The mature trees that live in our neighborhoods still need to get water, and their roots are far more extensive than you probably realize. Plus, covering the ground with plastic stops any possibility of recharging our groundwater supplies with the minimal precipitation that we DO get and increases run of and stormwater run-off problems.

On the one hand, maybe this isn’t the year to plant new trees and shrubs since they’ll need more water; on the other hand, maybe this is a wise year to plant new trees and shrubs to help replace those mature ones we’ll lose to long term drought stress. Maybe this is the year to really take a good look at our irrigation systems and see how we can make them more efficient. If you aren’t already using highly efficient drip or soaker irrigation in your vegetable gardens, this would be an excellent time to install such a system.

If you feel lost or overwhelmed, take advantage of a terrific local resource – the Xeriscape Demonstration Garden located the Colorado Springs Utilities Conservation and Environmental Center (2855 Mesa Road). Not only is it a great demonstration garden, but the center is currently setting up a schedule of high-quality classes and presentations this spring to help homeowners take care of their landscapes during drought. Watch for their class schedule here (coming soon):

Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more about water (and think more about your relationship to it), an excellent read is “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” by Charles Fishman, and a terrific movie to watch is “Last Call at the Oasis.” You’ll be amazed at just how fascinating water is and how much we’ve taken it for granted.

Contributed by Carey Harrington, Certified Colorado Gardener, Colorado Native Plant Master, and Colorado Springs Utilities Xeriscape Demonstration Garden Volunteer