Conference Note: 2012 Annual WaterWise Water Conservation Summit, Part 3

Denver, Colorado, October 19, 2012

At the 2012 Colorado Conservation Summit, a variety of speakers from Colorado’s water community presented on a diverse range of topics.  These presentations covered issues including the current state of Colorado’s water supplies, recent water conservation policy and legislation, new water fixture technology, drought planning, and the political impact of revenue loss on water conservation programs.

Drought Planning Perspectives: A Snapshot on Action and Intent

Peter Mayer of Aquacraft, Inc. moderated the multi-city panel discussion on drought planning and prompted the panelists with questions about actions their respective cities are taking to prepare for another dry winter.

Taryn Finnessey, Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) drought climate-change technical specialist, opened up the discussion by describing CWCB’s current Drought Mitigation and Response Plan (“Drought Plan”), approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in January 2011.  Finnessey explained that the Drought Plan tracks drought impacts across Colorado and seeks to better manage drought from the state prospective by compartmentalizing regions of the state and providing flexible and individualized response to those affected regions.  The Drought Plan also employs a drought task force, consisting of executive directors from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Department of Local Affairs, and Department of Agriculture, to brainstorm and implement drought response and mitigation strategies.

Russ Sands from Boulder’s Water Quality and Environmental Services spoke next and noted that cities must have emergency plans to respond effectively to drought.  He outlined several important components to a drought emergency response: 1) creating a unified message; 2) effectively disseminating information to the public through thinks like brochures or yard signs; 3) pursuing public education within the first seventy-two hours following the declaration of a drought emergency, as this time is often the most effective to disseminate a message; and 4) creating a drought plan that realistically manages expectations and is achievable.  Sands also noted that a city must be prepared to act the moment after declaring a drought emergency.  When a city instead tries to assemble all these pieces subsequent to declaring an emergency, the plan will likely fail.

Lucas Mouttet, water conservation coordinator for Fort Collins Utilities, discussed the recent issues caused by the High Park fire, and the consequences of a fire occurring in a city’s watershed during a drought.  He spoke about the importance of a flexible drought plan to accommodate these tangential issues and the resulting contaminated water.  Mouttet also explained that Fort Collins avoided employing city wide water restrictions this year, although many neighboring cities employed water restrictions during drought, because of its particular water plan that employs alternative water sources.  Additionally, Fort Collins has developed multiple water use plans to account for the various water condition scenarios that may occur in 2013.

Ruth Quade with the City of Greeley spoke about the recently codified Greeley water drought plan.  She stressed that the focus of drought plans must get the message out to customers on the importance of water wise use.  She described the use of social media and the internet as an important outreach component to implement utility drought plans.  Such outlets help keep the public informed during the drought, especially when water restrictions change throughout the year.  She also acknowledged potential problems with awareness among specialty population groups, such as Hispanic and elderly customers, who may not otherwise be informed of restrictions in their community.  She stressed that utilities do not want to punish customers or their landscapers for breaking restrictions about which they were ignorant.

Last to present from the panel was Linn Brooks with Eagle River Water and Sanitation District who spoke about the importance of planning early for a drought and effectively communicating the drought plan to the public.  Utilities should acknowledge the reality of current operations, by setting objectives and priorities and communicating them both internally and to the customers.  Yet utilities must balance such known elements with the unlikely ones in order to be fully prepared during a drought.  An assessment of potential drought impacts, such as fire or other water supply emergencies, is necessary to provide such data.  Brooks also emphasized the fact that during a drought demand is high, yet supply is limited.  Because flexible system operation can maximize any available stream flows, Brooks noted that flexible operation of water systems can narrow the supply and demand gap.

When asked by the moderator whether Colorado is more prepared today than in 2001, all participants on the panel agreed that Colorado is more prepared today, due, in part, to statewide mitigation plan which incorporates lessons from the 2002 drought.