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The cost of water is only going one direction in Eagle County

Jan 27, 2024

News News | 4 hrs ago

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Ramped-up regulations, aging infrastructure and building risk resiliency are responsible for rising water rates in Eagle County — and will continue to drive costs up into the future.

This is according to Siri Roman, the general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, in a presentation she gave to Vail Town Council on Tuesday, June 6. During the first in a series of three presentations, Roman discussed why water costs what it does, why rates are increasing, and what the district is doing to secure the valley's water future.

Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority recently combined public water systems to create the 25th-largest community water system in the state out of 943 total systems. Additionally, it is the second-largest system on the Western Slope and has the third-most infrastructure in the state.

"Every couple years (the state) come(s) and inspect(s) all our assets and they told us that they need two weeks to inspect just our drinking water infrastructure alone," Roman said. "That's about the same amount of time it takes them to inspect all of Denver Water. Denver Water has 1.5 million customers and we have about 30,000. So we don't have the benefit of population to help spread the costs like Denver does."

"We want to find your why to reduce your water use. For me, it's the future, I have children and I want to leave this place better than I found it. For some people, it might be money. They might not make an adjustment until they get a $3,000 water bill. So, what is your why? Is it the environment? Is it rafting? Is it skiing? We’re trying to hit all those targets for the next three years and then given board direction, we might have to get tighter." — Siri Roman, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District

This system includes 48 tanks, 43 pump stations, 270 miles of pipe and 83 pressure zones.

While the two systems are now unified, there are still different rate structures for the district versus the authority. The most recent rate increase came in January.

According to Diane Johnson, the district's public affairs manager, between 2022 and 2023, the typical customer — defined as using between 5,000 and 6,000 gallons of water a month — saw the following increases:

Primarily, water and wastewater utility providers are governed by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. However, there has been increased attention and regulation around water that is creating new requirements.

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One of the areas of increased regulation and growing concern is the presence of PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as forever chemicals. These chemicals are found in a myriad of items including Sharpies, microwave popcorn, Gore-Tex and dental floss. And, as their nickname suggests, they never degrade.

Roman said that while the regulatory agencies have known that these chemicals are toxic "for decades," there's been a recent spotlight on the drinking water community.

"There's now a big focus to get PFAS out of our drinking water and of course, we agree with that, we don't want it in our water either. But it really needs to stop being produced. We have to stop it at the source," she added.

The district recently voluntarily tested its source water for the presence of these chemicals. While the initial limited data did find "trace amounts" of these substances in local source water, it is below the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed standard for what is safe to drink, Roman said.

"There's no immediate impact to our system now, but it is something we’re considering as we develop our master plans," she said. "Removing PFAS will be extremely difficult and costly to do. Also, when you remove it from the water, you’re creating hazardous waste, so it's just a very difficult cycle."

Another area of growing national concern is the presence of lead in drinking water as a result of the recent incidents in Flint, Michigan. While the local service areas do not have lead service pipes, the issues in Flint have led to a federal requirement for all utilities to develop a service line inventory, Roman said. This is a federal requirement that will need to be met by October 2024.

"This will be a web-based GIS system that states the material of every customer service line. It's a very intensive program to develop," she said. "This whole exercise is just going to tell you what I’m telling you now, which is that we do not have lead service lines. … We do sampling annually with homes from a certain age and it's all very low concentrations of that lead."

Currently, the district and authority are upgrading a lot of infrastructure, both to comply with new regulations and requirements as well as due to its age.

"Given the age of our community, a lot of our assets are reaching the end of their useful life. So, everything in our system is approaching 50 years and when you open it up, we’re realizing that you have to replace it and maintain it," Roman said.

Ongoing and recent water work includes replacing sewer crossings over the Eagle River and replacement of other infrastructure in Dowd Junction, replacing water storage tanks throughout the region as well as the largest project in history: the upgrade of the district's wastewater treatment facility in Avon.

The project has a $63 million price tag and is being done to reduce the nutrients in its wastewater effluent (or the clean water that is returned to streams).

"We already reduce nutrients in our effluent, but the EPA and the CDPHE want us to reduce them even further. This project is regulatory driven," Roman said. "And we’re going to have to make similar improvements and the Vail facility as well as the Edwards facility, and they’re all going to be carrying similar price tags."

Looking ahead, as the district and authority seek to increase water supply, it has also purchased the historic Bolts Lake property south of Minturn. Roman said this project includes building a 1,200-acre foot reservoir over the course of approximately 10 years and costs around $100 million.

With climate change, water supply is becoming a growing concern not only in the Eagle River Valley but also across the West.

"The growing seasons are longer and people are using more water in the summer and fall when the streams are lower. So we’re directly seeing the impacts of the warming climate and really, our message is that everybody in the West needs to adjust to using less water," Roman said.

With that, the district and authority are preparing for a "permanently reduced water supply," she added.

To start, Roman said the entities are working to build a water scarcity plan, which will create triggers for future action in years of less water using snowpack, stream flows, reservoir storage and soil moisture as data points.

"And then we’re likely in the future, at some point, going to be asking the community to cut back on their outdoor water use," Roman said, adding that the district is unsure exactly what it will look like, but that the idea will be to "keep the water in our reservoirs and meet our augmentation demands."

At a high level, the district's goal is to reduce water use across its service area by at least 400 acre-feet by 2026. A timeframe that Roman described as "ambitious."

To start working toward this goal, it is targeting its single-family residential customers (which account for 80% of the district's accounts) and their outdoor water use. Targeting this will have the biggest impact because 95% of indoor water use returns to the streams after being processed and only about 25% of outdoor water returns.

With that, it's beginning with a carrot approach, attempting to incentivize these residences to reduce outdoor water use before potentially having to use more penalizing approaches in the future.

"We want to find your why to reduce your water use. For me, it's the future, I have children and I want to leave this place better than I found it," Roman said. "For some people, it might be money. They might not make an adjustment until they get a $3,000 water bill. So, what is your why? Is it the environment? Is it rafting? Is it skiing? We’re trying to hit all those targets for the next three years and then given board direction, we might have to get tighter."

The first place Roman recommends everyone start is just by looking at their water bill and understanding their water use and where they can cut back. Additionally, the district is encouraging the community to embrace "Colorado-scape," planting native landscaping as well as removing or reducing turf lawns.

It currently has rebates and incentive programs for converting lawns from turf as well as for certain irrigation projects.

Beyond the expectation that rates generally will continue to rise, there is likely a change coming to the rate structure.

Bills for the district and authority — while they have different fees and rates — both have fixed and variable costs. Fixed costs are fees connected to ensuring the core functions of the organizations can continue. Variable costs are what are tied to water usage, and are the portion of the bill that customers can control.

On Tuesday, Roman spoke to the Town Council about the district's fee structure. Currently, there is a flaw in this current system in that "the larger the home, the cheaper the water," a disparity that becomes more pronounced the more water is used, she said.

"We do intend to correct this this year. We want to make it so that all single-family homes pay the same rate for their cost for their water use. Following board approval, after our budget season, this is what we’re aiming to do, is that we all pay the same amount for our water use," Roman said, adding that this is a much more equitable method.

This change will not impact fixed costs, but rather the rates and tiers in variable costs.

"All of this is subject to both the district and authority boards of directors approving this proposed rate restructuring for 2024, and only applies to single-family (individually metered) residential accounts," Johnson said.

With a revised fee structure in the future, the goal is to "impact change, to get people to change landscaping, because you just cannot use that much water outdoors anymore. It's unreasonable, it's unsustainable and all of us are paying for that excessive use," Roman said.

Roman added that this change will likely only impact its largest users — approximately 20% of customers — in both the district and authority service areas.

"Really this is targeting our excessive users, they’re the ones that are going to feel this," she said.

Johnson added that there will be no change for residences that are billed as a single-family equivalent (SFE = up to 3,000 square feet) — "they’re already paying this way," she said.

"For homes that are more than one SFE, they’ll hit the higher tiers and costs much sooner than the current structure. And that's the change. Tiered rates will have the same amount of water in each tier regardless of home size," she added.

Looking toward the future, there are a lot of variables and changes coming for water and utility providers. However, with diminishing supplies, "the only way to prepare for a secure water future is by reducing our water use as a community," Roman said.

"Even if people reduce their use, it's likely that rates are going to continue to go up," she added. "It's not an easy time to manage a utility right now with the impacts of climate change; (there's) a lot of focus on different water quality things and aging infrastructure. This is the reality of water in the West and we want our community to come with us and really value water."

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Local water providers are preparing for a permanently reduced water supply. "