Will outdoor irrigation rules in Colorado Springs tighten amid drought conditions?

As drought conditions trigger emergency actions along the Colorado River, Colorado Springs Utilities does not expect to tighten watering restrictions this summer.

Colorado Springs Utilities limits outdoor irrigation to three days a week from May 1 through Oct. 15 each year and does not plan to enact any additional steps to cut outdoor water use this year because the city’s reservoir storage is strong with enough water to serve the city for 2.7 years, said Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Utilities.

The limits on outdoor watering were first enacted in 2020, and that year 560 acre-feet of water was conserved, Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Jordan said. That’s equal to 500 football fields covered in 1 foot of water. Last year, the city achieved a slight increase on that initial big savings with an additional 10.15 acre-feet conserved.

However, residents’ conservation is critical as the future of the Colorado River, which supplies 70% of the city’s water, could continue to see what the Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tanya Trujillo called drought conditions last week.

“Every drop they save is a drop that stays in our reservoirs. … All of those savings help us,” Ortega said.

Utilities will not reduce outdoor watering to two days a week until the water in storage drops below enough water to serve the city for 1.5 years, she said.

Spring runoff is expected to be below normal this year despite snowpack reaching average levels because the dry and thirsty soils are expected to soak up water on its way to rivers and streams.

Utilities is preparing for about 90% of the water it would normally expect to reach reservoirs, Ortega said.

The city will not see cutbacks triggered by the overall drought along the Colorado River until the upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — fail to meet their obligations to the lower basin states, she said. The upper basin must deliver 75 million acre-feet on a 10-year rolling average.

It is unknown if the upper basin users would take cuts as a percentage of their rights or if senior water right holders would get preference over junior water rights holders, if the obligation cannot be met otherwise, Ortega said.

“We don’t know exactly what that is going to look like,” she said.

However, the rules are expected to be renegotiated in coming years and water users will likely need to learn to live with a decreasing amount of water, Trujillo said. She said that the Bureau of Reclamation is willing to accelerate funding for projects that would reduce water use and maximize efficiencies.

“We simply need to do more and we need to do more now,” she said.

Trujillo called for more action as she described how 500,000 acre-feet would be released from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwestern Wyoming and 480,000 would be held back to protect power production in Lake Powell.

Trujillo said she expected more water recycling projects along the Colorado River as part of conservation efforts.

Colorado Springs reuses all the water that it brings in from other basins, Ortega said.

The city has also transitioned from using 60% of its water on outdoor irrigation to 60% on indoor uses over the past 20 years, Jordan said. But the work needs to continue.

“Can we do better and still maintain healthy vibrant landscapes?” she asked.

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