While Colorado and the West have regularly faced compromised water from shrinking rivers and forest fire damage, Greeley has weathered the storm a bit better than most. The city has been able to tap into its many water sources to fill the gaps left by fires and drought that plague the Rocky Mountain West – a vital part of the city’s water planning that stems back at least 100 years. But now is no time to rest.
Western water cutbacks could trickle down
Drought could cut off water throughout the Rocky Mountain West
For the first time in history, officials recently ordered water cutbacks in the Colorado River. Shrinking river flows will mostly cut off water to Arizona farmers next year, with more cutbacks expected in Nevada and parts of Mexico in the future. Time will only tell if those cutbacks extend further to other locations in what officials are calling the “new normal.”
“The uncertainty is greater than any time in the history of municipal use in the Colorado River Basin,” said Sean Chambers, director of Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department. In the long run, continued shortages could result in mandatory and uncomfortable water restrictions.
While Greeley gets 50 percent of its water from the Colorado River, the remainder of our water comes from the Poudre and Big Thompson Rivers, which were compromised last summer during one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Resulting ash and debris this summer forced Greeley water officials to find alternative water supplies for over a month, as the water was untreatable. The city was able to arrange a trade with a local irrigation company of water from Horsetooth Reservoir to make up for the lost supply. But that alternative may not always be available. See this video about Greeley has led the way to wildfire recovery.
Aquifer storage to the rescue
Experts agree the path to the future is through underground storage
States, cities and water managers across the United States have seen this coming for a long time. They have been looking for alternatives to diversify water sources and storage options.
Aquifer storage – the idea of storing water underground in porous rock -- is nothing new. Water can be stored below ground in the aquifer and be treated on its way out. For more than 50 years, aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) has gained interest as an alternative way to store water for municipalities. In fact, “many water managers expect ASR to become an increasingly important tool for meeting future water demand,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. ASR is a system in which water can be stored underground - pumped out during drought, but also injected back in (or recharged) during wet years.
In 2004, the State Geological Survey identified 19 active operations in Colorado. Active programs run throughout the country, including Arizona, South Florida, Orange County, Calif., and Texas. As of last year, there were 200 ASR systems in the United States, according to the Texas Water Development Board, which manages three systems. The first ASR facility in the United States was built in 1969 in Wildwood, N.J., and it continues to operate today.
Terry Ranch is Greeley’s water future
The underground aquifer will supply water for future populations
Greeley officials invested in ASR this year, bringing on more than 1.2 million acre-feet of water in the Upper Laramie aquifer at Terry Ranch, just south of the Wyoming border. That water will be enough to supply a projected 2065 population of more than 260,000. Being underground, it will not be subject to evaporation or potential pollution from above-ground pollutants, such as urban or agricultural runoff.
It will still be a while before the pipelines and treatment equipment can be built to tap into Terry Ranch, but it will be an important part of the city’s long range water planning, and it will enhance its water portfolio at a time when there are fewer surface water sources from which to choose. Denver Water calls ASR its “all-of-the-above strategy.”
In Greeley, we’re calling it our water future.
“The drought-proof nature of confined aquifer groundwater like Terry Ranch is an important element of any water portfolio that has higher exposure to the Colorado River shortage,” Chambers said.