Water usage leaps, despite pleas
As Mesa County residents open their water bills from the first month of summer, they may be in for an unpleasant — but completely avoidable — surprise.
Despite recent calls for residents to voluntarily reduce their water usage during this year’s extreme drought and even mandatory restrictions in some parts of the county, water usage has actually increased in the past month.
Earlier this month, the Grand Valley’s domestic and irrigation water companies collectively announced that the drought which has resulted in record-high temperatures and record-low precipitation in western Colorado was a “Stage I Drought,” meaning they were asking customers to conserve water wherever possible.
And at the end of last month, Redlands Water & Power Co. was forced to implement an alternating watering schedule for its thousands of irrigation customers, as there was not enough water running through its hydroelectric-powered pumps for them to be able to get water to all its customers at once.
That plan has apparently backfired.
The problem there was not that there was not enough water; it was that there was not enough water to power the pumps that bring that water up to the Redlands residents.
But now enough water is running through the hydroelectric plant that, in theory, there should be no problem getting enough water to Redlands residents — except that residents have overcompensated for the watering schedule so much that now the problem is, in fact, that there is not enough water.
“We now have enough water where we could operate normally, but people are using so much that there just isn’t enough,” Redlands Water & Power Superintendent Kevin Jones said. “If everyone cut back just a little bit, everyone would get enough.”
Just how much water is currently being used by Redlands irrigators? Those numbers are not tracked since customers pay a flat rate for their irrigation water, but Jones says that all four pumps are operating at full capacity — normal years would usually see only two in operation — meaning that the irrigation ditches are being filled to capacity.
But despite that exceptionally large amount of water going into those ditches, they are running dry by the time they reach the end of the line, according to Jones, meaning that customers toward the start of the ditches are using far more than they typically would and customers at the end — as well as the Gunnison River, into which the ditches would normally drain — are getting little to none.
“It’s kind of like a vicious cycle,” Jones said.
That cycle has apparently expanded beyond just irrigation water. The Ute Water Conservancy District provides domestic water to more than 80,000 customers throughout the valley.
Despite repeated requests that customers conserve what has always been a precious resource in Colorado — and a rate scheme that increases sharply as customers increase their water use — Ute Water has seen significant increases in water usage so far this year.
“There are some residential customers using three times the amount of water, when compared to their last month’s and even last year’s water usage,” Ute Water spokesman Joe Burtard said.
For the 84 percent of water users that have so far been billed this month — everywhere but Orchard Mesa — there has been a 22 percent increase in water usage through mid-June this year versus a year ago, Burtard said. That means those customers have used 54 million gallons more water so far this year than last, he said.
One of the mechanisms to discourage such spikes in consumption is a multi-tiered rate system where the more water a customer uses, the more he or she pays per 1,000 gallons. The first 3,000 gallons costs 15 dollars, but for the next 6,000 a customer would pay an additional $3.50 per 1,000 gallons. That rate would go up to $4 per 1,000 gallons for the next 6,000 gallons all the way through 30,000 gallons.
“It doesn’t look like it’s very aggressive, but it starts adding up fast,” said Burtard. An average family of four can use 9,000 gallons per month, according to Ute Water’s website, but Burtard said “a lot” of customers are exceeding 30,000 gallons right now.