Centerfield farmers, citizens prepare for difficult water year ahead

Members of the Centerfield Water Board listen to local residents discuss how to manage water distribution in town during what could be a dry summer.

CENTERFIELD—The topic of drought has become a primary concern and focal point of conversation at Centerfield City Council meetings lately.

A committee of six citizens and farmers who have taken on the task of planning for water conservation in town told the council the way secondary water is distributed is not sustainable.

David Beck, a committee member, councilman and a local farmer, said another projected dry summer would cause problems allotting water between farmers who depend on crop production and residents who want green lawns.

Especially for farmers, a drought “can be devastating,” Beck said. “The one thing that is 100 percent certain is anybody that doesn’t have all the water they want is going to have a complaint. No matter what, water is going to cause contention.”

He described 2018 and 2020 as having brought some of the worst droughts he has seen in his life as a farmer here since he was born in Gunnison in 1954. He said 2018 was the worst year he had seen since the 1970s.

Although the snowpack was sufficient to create runoff last year, water levels suffered from the driest April on record and zero precipitation in the months of May, July, August and September.

Dry years force the council to make difficult decisions in order to prevent the reservoir from drying up early in the watering season. One solution, Beck said, is water rationing, which the council has said will be all but unavoidable this year and could begin earlier than last year.

Rationing comes with different implications to residents depending on how they use water. The council has to weigh the interests of farmers and residents in small lots when deciding how to implement such restrictions, Beck said.

“If your goal is to have a green lawn all year long, you’d better do some rationing,” he said. “If your goal is to grow some alfalfa and tall greens, then you’d better get your water on early,” which is difficult when water is rationed. “If you start off burnt, you’re never going to get enough water on to catch up.”

Based on what has so far been a light snow pack this year and projections of low precipitation in the months to come, he had concerns this year could be dry again.

According to Beck, March and April will be important months for the irrigation water supply. In order for the snow-melt to contribute significantly to the reservoir supply this year, the mountains will need about four more inches of precipitation in the spring. (See accompanying story about regional water supply for a more detailed report).

Based on recommendations from the water committee, the city council has planned to create an ordinance designed to maximize the availability of water shares and keep them better organized in the city’s record.

In the long-term, council members said at a meeting last Wednesday, the city will look to have meters for measuring secondary-water use installed at every home. The mayor and council are also planning a campaign to educate residents about their use of water.

Beck described the current way people use water in accordance with the shares they have purchased as an “honor system.” Beck, the mayor and other members of the water committee agree that the main reason the city runs out of water is that people use more than they are allotted.

“I think it’s part problem of ignorance, part problem of impossibility to calculate,” Beck said. “Each individual needs to know how much they’re using.”

For now, Centerfield City is in the process of drafting an ordinance that pertains to water shares on local properties and requiring secondary-water meters to go with future construction projects. The council will hold a public meeting to hear from residents before ratifying it.

At the next council meeting on Wednesday, March 17, the council will hear options about funding a future initiative to have secondary-water meters at every property in town.

“The direction that we realize we have to go is to get the water on the system metered. [Centerfield] is one of the few places that is not,” Beck said.

The biggest variable is the amount of precipitation to come. Beck said he was not encouraged by the long-term forecasts he had seen.

“We can always pray. We live in a desert; we’re always in a drought,” the lifelong Centerfield farmer said.