When Paonia resident Jon Howard went turn on the dishwasher last Friday morning, there was no water to clean the dishes.
Same thing when he went to the bathroom, wanted to take a shower or fill up a glass from the kitchen sink.
“Every time you go into the bathroom you just automatically hit the faucet,” said Howard, manager of Paonia’s public radio station, KVNF. “And now I automatically hit the faucet and it just stares at me.”
Howard is one of about 1,500 residents of the Western Slope town of Paonia who’ve seen their water supplies diminished or completely shut off as town officials grapple with a series of leaky pipes and ongoing drought conditions.
The problem started on Feb. 17, when Paonia’s water operators noted a loss of water in a 2 million gallon storage tank. A team went out looking for a leak, but could not locate it. As the leak continued, the town’s water system lost enough pressure that the state of Colorado imposed a boil order. In response, town officials declared a state of emergency.
A potable water tank arrived soon after, on loan from the National Park Service, which affected residents could use to fill up vessels to take water back to their homes. A team, aided by the city of Westminster, was sent out to locate the leaks. They found one in a supply pipe that was spilling into the North Fork River. After locating the leak, the town’s water delivery system came back online on Feb. 22.
Four days later, town officials discovered that its water customers were consuming more than what was being produced at its water treatment plant. A series of 22 springs at the base Mount Lamborn serves as the town’s raw water supply. Because of record-breaking dry conditions during much of 2018, the springs are running at half their normal volumes for this time of year.
To avoid seeing the town’s entire supply dip to a dangerous level, town administrator Ken Knight chose to shut down some water users to allow the system to recharge. First he denied water to 27 mostly rural providers who purchase water from the town to deliver to customers within Delta County. Then Knight turned off the majority of the town’s residential users, choosing to maintain service at Paonia’s schools, town buildings, downtown business district and other facilities deemed critical to the town’s operations.
Since then, Knight says the town has been working with a local rancher association to tap into a privately-held reservoir to fill the town’s system. That’s allowed most of Paonia’s downtown core to keep receiving water while the rest of the community has been out of water or on a boil notice.
Even when water service returns, which could come as early as Monday, the town will remain on a boil order until the town can flush its system, pull samples of the treated water, and send them to a lab for testing. If those samples show the water is safe to drink, Knight says Paonia residents could get service back without a boil order in place by Wednesday afternoon.
If samples come back positive for contaminants, that process would be delayed until the water is deemed safe.
“It’s worse than an incident but less than a crisis, and I’m not sure what that word is,” Knight said. “But it’s certainly affected us all and it was a wake up call for us.”
Knight said he’ll be looking to push for new conservation measures in town once the dust settles. He also said this water shortage could be the basis for a capital campaign to repair aging infrastructure and build new raw water storage.
“Trust me, I live in one of the areas where I turned the water off to,” Knight says. “When you have to live for a week and a half without water, you really come to realize how precious water is.”
Town resident Jon Howard said he and his wife have been jokingly referring to the water shortage as their “weekend camping trip,” due to the lack of showers and easily accessible drinking water.
“It really has made you appreciate how much water you use, that’s for sure,” Howard said. “If nothing else maybe our water system will be actually in decent shape by the time this is all over.”
The town is holding a community meeting to brief residents on the latest developments Tuesday evening at the Paradise Theater in downtown Paonia.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.