Boulder’s water supply appears to be in good shape for the upcoming year, thanks to a wet winter, according to an update given by city staff to the Water Resources Advisory Board this week.
Each May, Boulder’s water resource managers determine whether water restrictions will be needed in the coming year based on snowpack and reservoir levels. Despite some persistent drought conditions, it seems unlikely that Boulderites will face any such restrictions this year. The reservoirs in Boulder’s Middle Boulder Creek basin are already at above-average levels, and the North Boulder Creek basin reservoirs are expected to fill up when the snow melts.
The exception is the Albion reservoir in the North Boulder Creek watershed. But that’s only because Albion is getting a facelift. With work scheduled to finish in 2024, Albion will be able to fill in 2025.
“At this time we do not anticipate declaring a Drought Alert Stage or implementing water use restrictions in 2023,” a city memo to the water advisory board said.
Yet that doesn’t mean drought conditions have completely resolved. While last year moved Boulder further from the brink, the memo said some drought conditions have still persisted “in much of the South Platte Basin.” The area, which has a border along the Continental Divide, extends north of Fort Collins and south of Castle Rock, and far out east.
In addition to North Boulder Creek and Middle Boulder Creek, the City of Boulder receives about a third of its water from the other side of the Continental Divide, from the Colorado River.
That portion of Boulder’s supply is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) project and outside Boulder’s control. Instead, it’s managed by Northern Water. Nearly all of the project’s water comes from snowmelt. With a snowpack 132% of the median in the Upper Colorado Headwaters basin, things are looking good there too.
Based on this above-average snowpack and streamflow projections, the Northern Water board of directors voted to provide Boulder, and others with stake in the C-BT, the most common allotment of water – 70% – since the board began setting quotas in 1957.
The Colorado-Big Thompson water comes from the headwaters of the Colorado River, meaning that portion of Boulder’s water may someday be subject to the issues that are currently plaguing Arizona and California — two of the seven states that pull from the Colorado River.
With Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropping to dangerously low levels, the federal government is trying to get states that pull from the river to cut back. If usage is not curbed, not only would the hydroelectric power plants of both the Glen Canyon Dam and the Hoover Dam stop producing energy, but water levels could drop below the openings that allow water to continue downstream, leading to catastrophe. Right now, most of the pressure is on Arizona and California. In the future, that could change.
So Boulder would benefit from getting more efficient in its water use. Appropriately, the city’s water efficiency plan is up for renewal in 2023, as it is every seven years, and city staff are collecting feedback from the public and other entities before starting the update.
The city currently has a public questionnaire to collect information from residents on their thoughts about water conservation. Kim Hutton, the water resources manager for the city, told Boulder Reporting Lab she was surprised by many of the responses, namely why residents want to conserve water. While some people said they just wanted to save money on their water bill, “a lot of responses were that [conserving water] is the right thing to do. A lot of people have that conservation ethic,” she said.
Hutton said the questionnaire also shows that residents, on the whole, don’t realize there are programs available to help them conserve water, like turf replacement programs and outdoor sprinkler audits.
Also at the Water Resources Advisory Board meeting, city staff gave an update on Covid levels in the wastewater. Boulder first started monitoring wastewater for the virus in March 2020. It has continued since then, having secured federal funding through 2025.
“As the public attention to Covid has started to wind down and people have been doing less regular self-testing, wastewater has become relied on more heavily by public health officials to see what the trends are,” said Joe Taddeucci, the city’s director of utilities.
City staff said Covid in Boulder’s wastewater is trending down. And soon that’s not all Boulder’s utilities will be looking for. An expansion of the program will enable testing for influenza, RSV, antibiotic resistant genes and other pathogens in Boulder’s wastewater. This will provide local health workers a snapshot of what illnesses are present in our community.