News Feature | April 22, 2019

In Aspen, Avalanches Threaten Water Security

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Colorado has its fair share of water security issues, with population growth and climate change affecting its primary source. Now, water supply advocates in Aspen are raising red flags around the vulnerability of their supply and its ability to withstand avalanches, fires, and dwindling snowfall.

“In a presentation to members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association … [Interim City Manager Sara Ott] said Aspen’s water supply is one emergency away from being unavailable,” Aspen Daily News reported. “The city primarily gets its water from Castle and Maroon creeks. Last month, avalanches and debris in the watershed threatened water flow upstream of city intake pipes in both valleys.”

Before an avalanche in early March, Aspen was only able to avoid interruptions in its water service because the city was closely monitoring water flow levels. City staff had to maintain a local treatment plant’s head gates every day, removing ice, tree branches, and boulders that arrived during runoff season.

According to the report, the city’s reservoir only holds enough backup water to serve the community for half of a day. Concern stems from the fact that staff has to maintain such a close watch on the influent and spring into action immediately following an emergency or else it will be totally dependent on this relatively meagre reservoir supply.

“From my perspective as a water manager, we need to plan a little more resilience in our system so if something did happen that we couldn’t clear things within a day, we’d have a little more storage to live on,” Margaret Medellin, Aspen’s utilities portfolio manager, said, per the News.

But avalanches are just one of many potential water security issues that Aspen faces with such low reserves. A fire last year threatened the power lines feeding the system’s pump stations. And Medellin identified climate change as the biggest issue facing the local water supply, as less snow means that supply may have a hard time keeping up with demand.

Perhaps most concerning of all for the water supply managers is the fact that borrowing water from neighbors is also an obstacle.

“We are uniquely vulnerable not only because we have such a limited amount of storage but we are also at the top of the watershed,” Medellin said, per the News. “We don’t really have the ability to tap into a neighbor system if we get into trouble.”

To read more about how communities protect their backup water supplies, visit Water Online’s Resiliency Solutions Center.