Fort Collins Utilities takes a proactive approach to water shortage preparedness by planning for a variety of water shortage events, like drought, limitation of water supplies, or an emergency in our water distribution system, which includes issues with water quality or infrastructure.
A water shortage occurs when the projected water supply is less than the anticipated water demand with a set amount of water reserves in storage. Water supply is planned to include a storage reserve factor that equates to 20% of annual demand in storage through a 1-in-50 year drought (a drought that typically occurs about once every 50 years).
Fort Collins Utilities uses water supply projections, meteorological forecasts and available storage to estimate whether supplies are adequate to meet demand. If supplies are less than planned, water restrictions may be necessary in order to manage the availability of water for use in the immediate future or within the planning horizon for managing the water supply, as outlined in the current Water Shortage Action Plan. The plan applies only to customers in the Fort Collins Utilities service area.
Water Shortage Action Plan (WSAP)
The WSAP includes a comprehensive list of tactics and restrictions for customers to implement in the event of a water shortage. The WSAP also includes definitions of shortage levels and guidelines for the City Manager to declare a shortage or restrictions.
Being in a semi-arid region, drought is never too far from our minds. We’ve experienced several severe droughts in the past that have challenged our water system and depleted our supply.
As part of the Water Supply and Demand Management Policy, Utilities’ water supply system is maintained to meet customer water demand during at least a 1-in-50-year drought (a drought that typically occurs about once every 50 years) in the Cache la Poudre River Basin.
Utilities defines a drought as below-average runoff from the Cache la Poudre River. Droughts are measured by:
- Duration (or run-length)
- Cumulative deficit below the average
- Average annual water shortage
Fort Collins experienced severe or extreme droughts in 1977, 2002, 2012 and 2020.
Stay updated on statewide drought conditions through the U.S. Drought Monitor.
How You Can Help
With such a dry climate, it’s always important to use water wisely. Everyone can make a difference, whether it’s watering the lawn efficiently, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, changing your landscape so you don’t need as much water, or making changes to your indoor fixtures or business operations to reduce water use even more. Each individual action adds up and we wouldn’t be able to do it without you.
When thinking about water shortages, water quality doesn’t often come to mind. However, it is just as important as drought when considering our ability to meet water demand.
We’re fortunate to have flexibility between our two water supplies (the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and Cache la Poudre River), but when source water quality issues combine with drought, water demand may be difficult to meet without water restrictions.
Following the 2012 High Park Fire, spring rains in 2013 washed ash and debris into the Cache la Poudre River, making it difficult to treat the water for customers. At that time, we shut off the water treatment intake on the Poudre River for over 100 days and relied on our Colorado-Big Thompson shares via Horsetooth Reservoir.
Fortunately, the 2013 flood cleaned out the watershed much quicker than anticipated and we were able to resume normal operations before needing extended water restrictions.
Other instances where we might need to rely on one water supply over the other would be in the event of a vehicle accident in the Poudre or a large spill contaminating either source.
Like water quality issues, if an issue arises with our infrastructure, like unexpected damage or a wildfire, or we need to perform routine, proactive maintenance, we may only be able to rely on one water source. If this is combined with drought, it makes the chances of a water shortage greater.
As an example, during the Horsetooth Outlet Project (HOP), we were prepared to rely mostly on the Poudre River while the outlet from Horsetooth Reservoir to the water treatment facility received necessary maintenance and repairs. When combined with the unexpected drought and potential for source water contamination from the 2020 wildfires, we were more at risk of a water shortage and restrictions were enacted during the project.
Past Water Shortages#
- 2020 – The combined effects of the Horsetooth Outlet Project, drought and source water quality concerns from the wildfires created a risk of water shortage. Level IV outside water restrictions were enacted for 40 days in October-November to help lower water demand.
- 2013 – Due to drought and water quality concerns following the High Park and Hewlett fires, level 1 outside water restrictions were briefly enacted in April and May. The fires carried soil and ash into the Poudre River, causing water contamination and the Colorado-Big Thompson quota for Horsetooth Reservoir was initially lower than usual.
- 2002 – Due to drought, the City responded with level 1 restrictions in July and August, followed by more-stringent level 2 restrictions (one day per week watering) beginning in September.