Colorado town faces drought

People here are praying for snow, and they're not merely concerned about skiing conditions in Vail.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | AURORA, Colo. | February 14, 2003

"We don't believe we're going to be an exception this drought."

—Melissa Elliott

People here are praying for snow, and they're not merely concerned about the skiing conditions in Vail.

Aurora, a city of 290,000 at the southeastern edge of Denver, has suffered through a few years of drought right along with the rest of the Midwest.

This is high desert country, in the middle of a D3 drought, or an "extreme" drought an area that normally gets 15 inches of precipitation a year that got less than Phoenix, Ariz., in 2002.

According to Melissa Elliott, spokesperson for the city government, Aurora is taking aggressive measures to deal with this problem measures that nearby localities may be forced to adopt themselves in short order.

"We don't believe we're going to be an exception this drought," she said, "but we think we're going to be the first to announce these restrictions."

Restrictions on outdoor water-use were already tight. Car washing was banned, except at commercial carwashes (which operate under water conservation rules). Residents couldn't plant new lawns, or water their existing lawns. Irrigation of anything but agricultural land was terminated.

Then, on Feb. 11, the city banned the planting of new trees and shrubs.

Practically the only thing residents can do with their lawns is watch them turn brown and die.

This puts a temporary end to the more modest water conservation projects already implemented by the city-such as the lawn permitting process that made sure residents implemented water conservation measures. Or the encouragement of the use of "xeriscape."

"The idea is you reduce the amount of Kentucky bluegrass in your yard, and you replace it with plants that use less water," Elliott said. "While xeriscape is a good long term plan, it takes a lot of water to establish. We can't do that this year."

The best case scenario? If enough snow falls in the early spring, Aurora residents might be able to water their lawns twice a week. "Which still means we're going to have brown lawns," she said.

Elliott said about 95 percent of Aurora's water supply is a direct result of the runoff of melting mountain snow. But there hasn't been much snow this year, and Aurora's reservoirs, Elliott said, are down to 27 percent of total capacity.

2002, she said, was "the driest year on record for the Metro area."

Whether the new restrictions will have to remain throughout the year will be determined by the end of April-March and April being the months of heaviest snowfall.

Even a large snowfall in those months would not be enough to fully replenish the reservoirs, a task that could only be accomplished by several years of serious precipitation, she said.

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