Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: City, New Mexico Utilities square off over water usage

Concern over the Duke City’s future water supply has pitted the city against a private water utility company serving 55,000 people in northwestern Albuquerque and northern Bernalillo County.

“They continue pumping the same aquifer we’re trying to save,” said Alan Armijo, chairman of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board. “There really isn’t any way to have any kind of oversight on it from our end.”

“They” is New Mexico Utilities Inc., a water and sewage company that has asked the State Engineer’s Office to approve an increase in the amount of water the company can annually use. A hearing is scheduled for June 2007.

The Water Authority is protesting the increase, and Armijo and other Authority officials cite several concerns:

  • The amount of water being used by New Mexico Utilities.
  • The rate at which the company is replenishing the water.
  • Under an agreement signed with the company, if New Mexico Utilities left the state, the city would be held responsible for any water taken from the aquifer that the company had failed to replenish.
  • The company’s commitment to water conservation.

New Mexico Utilities customers are not subject to the water-use restrictions adopted by the city in 1995.

Those were taken on after scientific studies showed the Middle Rio Grande Basin aquifer contained less water than previously thought.

“Bottom line . . . how do we all in this region save water for the future and keep that aquifer with the ability to continue to replenish itself?” Armijo said.

Replenishing

The State Engineer’s Office said New Mexico Utilities is replenishing aquifer water better than the rate required by its permit, but the city-county water authority said what’s being counted as replenished water needs a new definition.

The company’s permit requires water depletions to be made up when they are seen in the river, explained Jess Ward, district one supervisor with the state engineer’s office.

But with aquifer-fed wells sometimes miles away from the river, years can pass before any effect is seen.

That means used water could go for years without the consumer having to replenish it.

Even though the company returns more water than is required by its permit, that amount is about 35 percent of what the company uses annually, Ward said.

The rest of the consumption has yet to impact the river, and so does not need to be replenished yet.

If the same water was permitted under regulations adopted in 2000, Ward said the company would need to immediately buy more water rights to replenish the water it is using.

That’s because the new regulations require an entity to replenish water as it is used. Monthly measurements track the consumption.

He said the Water Authority has its water usage more or less covered, if the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project is taken into account.

In 2008, that project – diverting water from the San Juan-Chama River – is expected to begin supplying up to 70 percent of the metropolitan area’s water.

By the water authority’s calculations – which don’t allow for returned water accounted for by the company and the State Engineer’s Office – New Mexico Utilities is annually taking out 3,700 acre feet more than it is required to put back in. That’s about 1,600 Olympic-sized pools of water.

The Water Authority is concerned that amount could increase, increasingly straining Albuquerque’s and Rio Rancho’s water supply while neglecting the state’s larger, water-conservation needs.

“It’s very scary for our (New Mexico’s) long-term sustainability,” said Mark Sanchez, executive director of the Water Authority. “We all live in a desert and we all have to get better at conserving water.”

But Bob Gay, vice president and general manager of New Mexico Utilities, a subsidiary of a California company, said New Mexico Utilities’ customers have significantly reduced individual use in the past 10 years.

“I think we have shown that we are doing a very good job in water conservation, short term and long term,” he said. “We are complying with all the requirements of the state Engineer’s Office of the state of New Mexico.”

Enacting additional conservation measures similar to the city’s would cost the company more money, he said. Those measures include limiting watering to certain days and charging fines for heavy water use.

Such steps would mean a rate increase for New Mexico Utilities, which the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission would have to approve.

The last increase came in 1986, Gay said. That same year, the company proposed increasing rates according to how much water a customer used, thus making heavy users pay more and theoretically promoting conservation.

The PRC rejected the plan, Gay said.

“If conservation is working without all these extreme measures, it doesn’t make sense for me to make people pay more for something when they’re doing the right thing now,” he said. “I really do believe if you educate people, they’re going to do the right thing.”

He pointed out that the company’s profit levels are set by the PRC.

“It’s not like we’re going to make any more money if the rates go up,” he said. “All it’s going to do is make our customers pay more for something than they have to.”

The city charges $1.41 per 748 gallons of water used, according to the Water Authority Web site. New Mexico Utilities charges 96 cents for the same amount, according to company documents.

A consequence of leaving

Gay said the Water Authority’s fears about the company leaving the state are groundless; it plans on staying.

If it did leave, the city of Albuquerque would be responsible for any water depletions of New Mexico Utilities that go unreplenished.

That could mean the city would be left with buying water rights costing between $28 million and $37 million at current rates, Sanchez warned.

To cover such depletions, the Water Authority wants the company to buy more water rights.

Water rights allow their owner to use about two acre-feet of water per acre of land, said John Stomp, water resources manager with the Water Authority.

An acre-foot is how much water it takes to fill one acre of land one foot deep with water. It is 325,851 gallons, or about half the amount of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Water rights are typically bought from farmers who stop working their land, Stomp said. Sanchez estimated that a single acre-foot of water costs about $10,000.

Sanchez said New Mexico Utilities has failed, for the most part, to buy water rights for the past 15 years.

Gay countered that New Mexico Utilities went after three purchases of water rights this year. But the Water Authority itself stymied two of them, he said, by filing a petition with the state engineer’s office. The protests were eventually dropped.

Such protests caused one deal to fall through because they can prolong how long it takes to complete a sale, Gay said.

Another deal was successful and another is pending. Gay would not say how much water would be included in the purchases.

“Every water right we try to buy, they protest,” he said. “I’ve had several buyers who won’t talk to me because they know it’s going to be dragged out (because of the protests).”

When asked to explain why the Water Authority protested the purchase of water rights, Sanchez said it was in response to protests lodged by the company when the Water Authority tried to buy additional water rights.

A request for more

The Water Authority is also concerned about New Mexico Utilities’ application to increase how much water it can pump from the aquifer.

The company wants to increase its allotment from 10,000 acre-feet per year to 60,000. The application is pending with the state.

“It is a big leap,” Gay said. “It would be an ultimate amount ever to be needed.”

The increase is so the company would no longer have to go through the permitting process, which Gay said can take years.

The idea of New Mexico Utilities having access to more water has Sanchez worried, especially when he claims the company is not buying enough water rights to make up for its use.

In the past, the authority and Rio Rancho have made overtures to buy the company but that failed.

Sanchez said there is no clear timeline for resolving the disputes or completing a sale, but lawyers for both sides are in talks.

FACTBOX: City Water Use

Here’s a look at how much water the city uses annually for all its customers, as well its number of residential accounts – which can be made up of one or more people – and per-capita daily usage for residential accounts:

1996: Total: 39.3 billion gallons; Accounts: 122,861; Per capita: 115 gallons.

2000: Total: 37.5 billion gallons; Accounts: 132,819; Per capita: 107 gallons.

2005: Total: 32.8 billion gallons; Accounts: 148,480; Per capita: 85 gallons.

Percent change: Total: Down 16.5 percent; Accounts: Up 20.9 percent; Per capita: Down 26.1 percent.

Source: Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Dept.

FACTBOX: New Mexico Utilities Use

Here’s a look at how much water New Mexico Utilities is using annually for all its customers, as well its number of residential accounts – which can be made up of one or more people – and per-capita daily usage for residential accounts:

1996: Total: 1.5 billion gallons; Accounts: 3,975; Per capita: 146 gallons.

2000: Total: 2.1 billion gallons; Accounts: 7,590; Per capita: 121 gallons.

2005: Total: 2.6 billion gallons; Accounts: 14,017; Per capita: 102 gallons.

Percent change: Total: Up 73.3 percent; Accounts: Up 252.6 percent; Per capita: Down 30.1 percent.

Source: New Mexico Utilities

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