Snowmass Tightens Up Its Water System

Pairing a motivated team with aggressive conservation, inspection and pipe maintenance keeps Colorado utility operating at peak efficiency.
Snowmass Tightens Up Its Water System
Snowmass Water and Sanitation District Manager Kit Hamby in front of the district’s scenic new freshwater storage reservoir. (Photography by Carl Scofield)

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If the Town of Snowmass Village is a community built on extreme skiing and snowboarding, then the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District is a utility built on extreme water conservation, inspection and maintenance.

Snowmass Village is located roughly 200 miles west of Denver on a circuitous ride through the Rocky Mountains. Ranchers settled the area around 1910.

However, its growth was spurred by the incorporation of its ski area into the Aspen Snowmass resort complex in 1967. The SWSD was formed the following year.

District Manager Kit Hamby has seen the town grow over his 38 years as a resident of Snowmass. “When I finished college, I originally came here to work for the Aspen Skiing Company,” he says. “I was environmentally minded, and when an opportunity opened in 2003 to run the water and sanitation district I accepted.”

The district takes its water from high mountain streams. Some of the water is stored in a new facility, the Ziegler Reservoir, so the district can call on reserves when flows are minimal. Potable water is also stored in 13 underground tanks totaling about 6.1 million gallons.

Make it snow!

“We supply a population that fluctuates from 2,500 to 18,000, depending on the season,” says Hamby. “We also have a great working relationship with the ski industry. If Mother Nature doesn’t step up to the plate, the district is their insurance policy. Between the start of the ski season on Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, we can be called on to supply from 80 to 100 million gallons of raw water for snowmaking.”

Both the sewer and water systems are relatively new, and each measure about 45 miles in length. The oldest parts of both systems date back to the 1960s. The entire system has been GIS mapped using Esri’s ArcGIS.

The water system includes 4 miles of raw water collection pipes in the high mountain basin. Water pipes range from 8 inches in diameter to 2 feet and are made of both cast iron and ductile iron. The 17 miles of cast iron were installed prior to 1972.

“They’re the most prone to leaks and breakage, in part because they’re mostly perched on a steep hillside where there’s a lot of ground movement,” Hamby says. “Frost can go as deep as 6 feet, and high water runoff in the spring satiates the soil. Our remedy is an aggressive pipeline replacement program. With an annual budget of $1.1 million, we’re replacing about a half mile of pipe per year, which is quite significant for a small community.”

While developers are largely responsible for new infrastructure, district crews handle most water pipe replacement and repairs.

In-house expertise

“We’ve developed tremendous in-house experience and capacity to work on our own system,” Hamby says. “There are few contractors in the area, and they’re expensive to bring in. Even replacing our own waterlines, it becomes more of a trucking operation, with an average of 60 percent of the project budget going to transportation of materials.”

Major waterline breaks are repaired immediately, while breaks producing less than an estimated 10 gallons per minute are repaired within 48 hours after discovery.

In-house crews also perform the state’s most aggressive waterline inspection and acoustic leak detection program. Crews inspect 100 percent of the system each year.

“We perform leak detection tests on 80 percent of the system in spring and then come back again in the fall to retest up to 60 percent of those lines,” Hamby says. “The program has paid big dividends. In isolated winter testing when no water is being used for irrigation, we’re typically seeing a 97 percent return flow to wastewater.”

In-house crews also perform annual flow testing on all fire hydrants and mechanically open all valves. In 2014, crews replaced most of the town’s water meters with Neptune smart meters and tested backflow prevention devices.

“It involved a lot of climbing into crawl spaces, but we’re now getting valuable information through those meters on water usage and even pinpointing reverse flow,” Hamby says.

Conservation for growth

Snowmass has already been developed to 80 percent of its final build-out, but taller condominiums and increased tourism are resulting in larger populations.

While developers are responsible for the new infrastructure, the district must meet the water and wastewater needs of new residents and businesses.

Water conservation is a critical issue for the district. Hamby must be part engineer and part diplomat as he balances the needs of the district with those of downstream users. However, water usage has been reduced considerably, from 652 million gallons annually in 2008 to just 450 million gallons today — even as the population has grown by 20 percent.

“Some of that has been the result of educating customers, and some of it is the rebuilding of some older condominiums with new buildings that include water-efficient fixtures,” says Hamby. “A lot of it was leak detection and repair. Aggressively going after even small leaks and replacing gaskets adds up.”

An advanced SCADA system helps keep the water system running smoothly. Water is largely gravity-fed from mountain streams. However, careful management of the system through several pressure zones requires only about 20 percent of potable water by volume to be pumped, reducing energy costs.

“Using radio telemetry, the SCADA system will also tell us the storage volume used in our tanks within a half percent and the tank level to within an eighth of an inch,” says Hamby.

The wastewater system is made of 60 percent PVC and 40 percent vitrified clay. As with the water pipes, sewer damage is typically the result of ground shifting and frost heaving, with roots entering through pipe cracks.

About 20 percent of the system is inspected and televised annually by in-house crews. In-house crews perform most repairs. However, outside contractors are called in to slipline larger lengths of damaged pipes with a PVC product.

Again, vigilance has paid off. Hamby reports that in 48-hour tests, the wastewater system has recorded virtually no leakage and operates at near 100 percent efficiency.

Balancing the system

Balancing both sewer and water systems during seasonal population swings requires a little extra attention.

“However, it doesn’t affect us as much as some people might think,” says Hamby. “If water is stored, we face the loss of some of our chlorine, so we try to turn over our stored water and keep it moving. At the wastewater treatment plant, we need people to keep using the sewer to keep the activated sludge alive.

However, we anticipate the slow periods and keep some activated sludge stored in tanks so we can feed it in during slow periods.”

As Snowmass heads into the future, Hamby reflects on the way the district has upped its game since the year 2000.

“We’re simply more aggressive about water conservation, inspection, repair and replacement,” he says. “That aggressive approach has become a permanent part of our culture.”



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