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A dry, dry year: Craig residents buffered from drought with ample water supply

CRAIG — In the midst of record-breaking heat and drought this year, Craig residents have been blissfully buffered from the water worries of the rest of the county and the state. Even as the Yampa River turned to a trickle by the time it reached Dinosaur National Monument, the City of Craig had all the water it needed.

The reason for this has a lot to do with water rights and good planning on the part of Craig's forefathers.

"Our water rights are pretty senior, so when we got the call, it didn't affect us much," said Mark Sollenberger, the city's water and wastewater director, referring to the first-ever call placed on the Yampa River in early September.

Warm, dry year breaks records in the Yampa River Basin

The call resulted in some other Moffat County water users, primarily ranchers, having their ditches shut off due to either junior water rights or a lack of a proper measuring device for their irrigation water. But it was business as usual inside city limits, with residents able to water their lawns and wash their cars as often as they liked.

"We don't have any water restrictions in Craig, and we've got plenty of water … so we weren't really that affected," said Parks and Recreation Director Dave Pike, who noted that, if anything, his department used more water this year to keep parks green in the oppressive heat.

The Yampa River is Craig's main source of drinking water. Some of the city’s water rights date back as early as 1883, according to Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. Situated right next to the river, the water treatment plant diverts the water it needs through an intake structure. Even with this year's historically low flows, "there were never any issues drawing water into the plant," Sollenberger said.

And, while the main source is the Yampa, Craig has even more water stored as a backup at Elkhead Reservoir, constituting more than a two year's supply.

"With our senior water rights, coupled with backup emergency storage at Elkhead … we're pretty secure," Sollenberger added.

In the 20 years he's been on the job, Sollenberger said he has never had to draw any water from Elkhead. The reservoir reliably refills each spring with runoff from the 205-square-mile basin that drains into the reservoir (though a string of bad snow years could change that). This year, the reservoir is only slightly lower than usual, at about 14 feet under capacity, compared to a more typical 12 feet for this time of year, Sollenberger said. He added, however, it can look dramatically lower due to the exposed shoreline.

Hot topic

During a time when water worries are skyrocketing statewide, conservation is a hot topic in many municipalities, but Craig is not alone in enjoying water aplenty.

"Water use anywhere in Colorado is really locally oriented," said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District. "Craig is not unique in that they have great water rights and didn't have to ask residents to cut back. And, you have to remember that they're in the water-selling business, too, so the less water that gets used, the less they make. That’s the case with everybody."

Pike echoed this sentiment, pointing out that Craig's domestic water is an enterprise fund.

"An enterprise fund is set up to make money," Pike said. "We're in the business to make water and sell it."

Even so, the city's water use has decreased in the past two decades, due partly to a slight decrease in population and partly to conservation methods.

"Historically, we're probably producing almost 50 million gallons less a year than we were back in 2002," Sollenberger said, a year that also saw severe drought across the state. "People have started to conserve, so we don't produce as much. … People have changed their method of watering their lawns — they've xeriscaped."

Watering lawns is a more consumptive use of domestic water than running the faucet, Pokrandt noted. While about 90 percent of household water runs down the drain, is treated, then is put back into the Yampa, only about 50 percent of water used on lawns makes it back into the river.

Just because no restrictions were needed this year doesn't mean that won't ever happen. The city does have a drought contingency plan, which would start by curtailing commercial users, such as car washes, Sollenberger said. But, given Craig's wealth of water, it would take what he calls a near "emergency situation."

Nonetheless, another year like this one could begin to deliver just that type of situation.

"All it takes is a couple back-to-back years like that, and we'd have to change," Pike said.

Contact Lauren Blair at laurensblair@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.