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Water is Life: Who’s Behind the Tap

Cheryl Cwelich

01 March 2018

Water connects us to each other, to our natural surroundings, and to life. The beautiful Upper Gunnison River Valley boasts numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and more that support this basin’s community and beyond. This piece on municipal water use continues a series of stories on our local people, their connection to water and how we can be good stewards to protect it.

Metal pipes and fittings emerge from the ground, bending here and there, a couple handwheels and levers show how the flow is directed. It reminds me of the old computer game, Pipe Mania, where one would lay pipe in the area provided before a water surge could overcome the fittings. But here in the real world, these angled arms and control valves are part of a City of Gunnison Wheelhouse where domestic water comes from one of the city’s nine wells. Water comes out of ground through a submersible pump, through tubes and filters, and goes directly into the city’s distribution system at approximately 260 gallons per minute.

Gunnison receives the majority of its water from ground water, an alluvial aquifer, but also supplements some water consumption through irrigation ditches from the Gunnison River. This irrigation water is not treated, so it isn’t potable water, and is used by homeowners for watering lawns, gardens and flowerbeds. These open water ditches, or as Western students might call them, “freshmen ditches,” are a unique system of water distribution that isn’t prevalent in other cities, and run throughout town, on most streets. The main city ditch runs 5 miles long, and at the community center, the ditch splits into a portion for use by the college, and the rest is diverted for residents. Anybody that has a ditch running through their property can get a pump to use the flowing water, though digging across the ditch is not allowed, and people would have to get a pipe. These city irrigation ditches are a way to “save” treated water from being used to water a lawn or garden, and help with conservation efforts by city managers.


It is a system that requires careful monitoring and management. One of the caretakers, who monitors the system and visits each wheelhouse almost everyday, is Water Operator Daren Glover. He works for the City of Gunnison’s Public Works Department, which is tasks with providing potable water to the community, among others duties. The Department is responsible for maintaining all domestic water distribution, water quality monitoring and metering, managing storm drainage, running the entire collections or sewage system, along with overseeing Gunnison’s 25 miles of irrigation ditches. There is one responsibility that stands out from the others, as Daren asserts that “Public Safety is the number one concern here.” The water that comes into the wheelhouse doesn’t need a lot of treatment. As Daren says, Gunnison is “blessed with high quality water.” The only element prevalent in Gunnison water is calcium, which is typical of ground water. While contamination isn’t a huge threat as in other states and areas, it is the goal of Public Works to not ever let that happen. “I enjoy the fact that our everyday actions affect the entirety of the town. All of our hard work is often time gone completely unnoticed when people turn on their tap. Being able to supply an extraordinary service without people having to worry about the quality.” Our ability to turn a faucet, and not worry about quality, is something we as a community all benefit from, and is a great privilege provided by people like Daren.

Having grown up in Gunnison, Daren has a deep love of the valley. Water is a way of life for him, and is more than just his position with Public Works; he is also an avid fisherman, kayaker and hockey player. While he spent ten years away from Gunnison working in the outdoor sporting goods industry, three years ago he committed to changing careers so he could come back. Daren heard about the open Meter Reader position from a friend, and was excited to learn the ins and outs. In the beginning, it took him two and a half weeks to read all the meters, now it takes him only three days. Gunnison has a unique metering system, with three different types of water meters: manual, Trace meters, and an Orion system. Manually reading a meter is as time intensive as it sounds, whereas the Trace meter uses radio waves to transmit data, and the Orion system offers additional analytics. Today, Daren’s job has transformed from just needing a CDL and reading the meters, to an array of responsibilities. One of Daren’s recent projects includes streamlining and upgrading the SCADA computer system used to run the well water system. This upgrade will give the Gunnison water managers more capabilities for controls and reporting. “With this upgrade I am building a reporting system I hope will place us as industry leaders in monitoring our water well health, well pump health, and historical data on our aquifer to justify future decisions for our distribution system.” Hard work, foresight and determination have made Daren a valuable asset to Public Works. He hopes that these kinds of upgrades and hard work between community members to understand different perspectives will inspire good decisions to protect the Gunnison watershed he works for and loves.

Daren is but only one of a few Meter Readers and Water Operators of our small mountain community. He has a wide variety of responsibilities including fixing water leaks, flushing fire hydrants, treating water, plowing snow, maintaining the ditches, and putting in new sewer systems. This diversity of work is something Daren deeply enjoys, calling himself, a “jack-of-all-trades.” He and his co-workers also do all of the well work, replacing or rehabbing the wells through influencing the aquifer to refresh the well, and put the new or old motor and pump back in. Looking towards the future and pondering the needs of the water system, Daren comments, “One thing that seems to stand out in my mind is two part; public education about water, water quality and water sources, and the recruitment within the water industry. There seems to be a very aged and dwindling labor source for this field.” It is surprising that, in a time of dynamic population growth and climate change, more people aren’t interested in water jobs. Further, water education seems imperative to any resident of an arid Western town such a Gunnison. Yet it does seem that when we turn on a water faucet, we don’t think about where that water comes from, how it got to our tap, and the people that made that possible.     

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