Due to the historic drought enveloping the Southwest, the Colorado city of Grand Junction drew drinking water from the Colorado River for the first time in decades.

On June 10, the Ute Water Conservancy District — the largest water provider between Denver and Salt Lake City — pulled from the Colorado River to supplement its primary water sources for the first time in its 65-year history. Ute Water serves 90,000 customers in Mesa County, which includes Grand Junction.

“This is part of a conscious effort from our board and our leadership to make sure that we have backup plans for our backup plans,” said Ute Water External Affairs Manager Andrea Lopez. “We’re making sure that no matter which way you dice it, we're going to have water for our customers.”

Just weeks later, an unnamed entity with senior water rights “called out” Ute Water’s use of the river. When there is not enough water to fulfill all the water rights on a stream, those with senior rights can ‘call’ for junior rights holders to stop using water until those senior water rights are satisfied, according to the Colorado River District. Increased demand for water is likely to lead to an increased number of similar challenges, experts say.

The western United States as a whole has suffered worsening droughts in recent years, with wildfires and water shortages becoming the norm. Currently, all of Grand County in Utah and Mesa County in Colorado qualify as in either extreme or exceptional drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The district first began taking seven cubic feet per second from the Colorado River starting on June 10, amounting to approximately 14 acre-feet per day. The amount of water it would take to cover an acre with one foot of water constitutes an acre-foot. The Ute Water Conservancy District primarily draws water from the Plateau Creek watershed and the Jerry Creek reservoirs on Grand Mesa, which are typically filled by snow melt.

“When water comes from Jerry Creek, that's the last time it sees sunlight until it comes out of our customers’ tap. It’s very high quality drinking water,” said Lopez. “Drawing from the Colorado River is not preferred because of the contaminants in it and the upstream users it has. Water from the Colorado River is also more difficult to treat.”

For example, recent mudslides in Glenwood Canyon have deposited debris into the river, which is difficult to remove.

“It might not be the highest quality of water that we're used to, but in years like this, the question is: is the water wet? Can we use it?” Lopez said. “This is definitely one of those years where if it’s wet water, it’s good water.”

Due to the extreme drought in Mesa County and poor winter water runoff, the Jerry Creek reservoirs had fallen to 96% full. While still high, the decision to draw from the river is a “mitigation factor to slow down the drawdown of our reservoirs and in preparation for if we have another bad drought next year,” said Lopez. “We need to be hanging on to all the water that we have.”

Ute Water told The Colorado Sun that out of the 14 acre-feet that the district drew from the Colorado River each day, only about 1.4 acre-feet were consumed. The rest ultimately return through the river and travel westward after passing through sewage and treatment plants.

Ute Water knew that it would not be able to divert water from the Colorado River for long, due to the district only having “junior” water rights.

In mid-June, before losing access to the Colorado River, the Jerry Creek reservoirs reached over 100% capacity. Now, the district is pulling seven cubic feet per second a day from the Ruedi Reservoir, or approximately 16 acre-feet of water each day.

“We are not taking any of the free flowing water from the Colorado River right now,” Lopez said. “We are only pumping stored water from the Ruedi Reservoir and using the Colorado River as the delivery channel to get the water from Ruedi to our pump station.”

Essentially, the district releases a designated amount of water from the Ruedi Reservoir into the Colorado River and then pulls that same amount towards its pump station.

After deciding to draw water from the Colorado River at their June board meeting, Ute Water also voted to tack on a 2% “drought pumping rate” to customers’ monthly water bills to compensate for the costs of pumping and treating water drawn from the Colorado River. The district estimated that this 2% charge amounts to 47 cents for the average household. The additional cost will be added to customers’ bills until Ute Water has made up the costs of pumping and treating water from the Colorado River.

Though the district is no longer collecting water directly from the Colorado River, the same pumping and treatment costs apply, as the cleaner water from the Ruedi Reservoir is muddied on its journey to the pump station down the river. Typically, Ute Water’s electrical chargers are low since their water system is gravity-fed, but retrieving water from the Colorado River requires electrical pumping up to the district’s water treatment plant.

“At this point, we're just holding on to everything that we can to get through the winter and to prepare for next year's drought, if we're still in one,” said Lopez. “We’re always preparing for the worst.”

Lopez reported that water usage in Mesa County begins to decrease in late September, when residents begin winterizing their homes, swamp coolers aren’t running and people are generally using less water.

“During spring and summer is when we’re most concerned about our reservoir levels, due to the heat, increased water usage, and because we have nothing significantly contributing to our stored water amounts,” said Lopez. She added that autumn “can’t come soon enough.”

“Think about it almost like a paycheck. There's a large amount of time in our year where we don’t have anything contributing to our reservoir levels,” Lopez continued. “So, just as you would with your finances, we're going hang on to any water that we can and use it very wisely.”