MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now. This has been one of the wettest years on record so far. Some towns in the West, though, are just a few unlucky incidents away from a widescale water shortage. Earlier this year, faucets in a small western Colorado town ran dry for nearly two weeks. The water is now back on, but it has left residents feeling insecure. From member station KUNC, Luke Runyon reports.
KEN KNIGHT: If you want to...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
KNIGHT: You could somehow visualize it then.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Ken Knight unfurls a map in his office in downtown Paonia, Colo.
KNIGHT: This is the town in - surrounded in yellow.
RUNYON: It shows a sprawling network of water pipes crisscrossing this agricultural community about four hours southwest of Denver. Knight is the town administrator, meaning he's in charge of making sure its water system works. And earlier this year, it didn't.
KNIGHT: If we had had only one of the things happen at each time, we would not have had a crisis. We had all three things happen, and we had a crisis.
RUNYON: Those three things were two massive leaks and a lingering drought from the year before. It all started on Valentine's Day. A tank that stores the town's drinking water was dropping fast. After a few days of searching for the leak, they found a fire hydrant near the banks of the river that flows through town.
KNIGHT: And the water was going straight through the river rock into the river, so it was not boiling to the surface.
RUNYON: Most of the time when you have a big leak, it pools in the street. But not when it's flowing into a river. So they patched it up. The tank was still dropping. Other burst pipes were draining it. And because the town was coming off 2018's record breaking hot and dry conditions, the mountain springs feeding the tank were running extremely low.
KNIGHT: And I said, OK, we're shutting off.
RUNYON: That meant for more than a week, there was no running water at all for most of the town's 1,600 customers. Instead, the town parked a big water tanker at Town Hall. And because it was February, people used melted snow to flush their toilets and wash dishes.
The shortage wasn't just hard on residents. Downtown Paonia is lined with brightly colored shops and restaurants to cater to farm-to-table tourists. Without water, many had to temporarily shut down. Tyler Timbrel manages Living Farm Cafe.
TYLER TIMBREL: I'd say we probably lost about five or six $1,200 days.
RUNYON: That would have been enough money to cover a month's worth of their utilities. Servers and cooks who count on hours and tips were told to stay home.
TIMBREL: It kind of just put the whole town behind it feels like.
DAVID HERZ: And it was incredible, the kind of psychic effect it had on the community.
RUNYON: David Herz had his water shut off on his farm just outside Paonia. He says the town's top priority needs to be fixing its water systems.
HERZ: These infrastructure costs are going to go up. I expect that. It's the right thing to do at this point.
KNIGHT: Here's the town. Here's the springs.
RUNYON: Back in his office, town administrator Ken Knight says the water shortage forced tough conversations about the community's future.
KNIGHT: What do we want growth to look like? Do we at some point in time put up the barricades and say not here?
RUNYON: Those questions led to even tougher ones, like whose water use is most important? Who should pay to fix this? And is the town ready for climate change?
KNIGHT: Water is the oil of the 21st century - clean drinking water. People don't quite understand how difficult it is to run a water system so you have clean drinking water.
RUNYON: Even though Paonia is out of drought now, Knight says if other small towns in the West aren't prepared to deal with their aging, leaky infrastructure, he says Paonia's story is a warning of things to come.
For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Paonia, Colo.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "LIGHTHOUSE (ORIGINAL MIX)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.