Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: County eyes water-conservation plan

New homes could use thousands of gallons less of water every year if a draft water-conservation ordinance going before the Bernalillo County Commission on Tuesday is adopted.

The plan calls for energy-efficient appliances, rain-capturing and wastewater-reuse systems in new construction to reduce the water consumption in unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County – areas estimated to have used 12.2 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone.

Those areas don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the water utility authority overseeing Albuquerque and other areas of Bernalillo County, and Bernalillo County Chairman Alan Armijo wants to see the regulations equalized.

“The drought in the last year and water availability has highlighted it (water conservation),” Armijo said. “We needed to look at stronger restrictions.”

Proposed regulations – affecting roughly 108,000 people living in unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County – include an option for building gray-water systems into new homes in order to meet water conservation goals.

Gray-water systems capture waste water from bathroom sinks, showers and washing machines and use it to water lawns and flowers, but not crops.

Kerry Bassore, water and conversation planner with the Bernalillo County Public Works Division, said such systems could reduce a home’s water use by as much as 29,000 gallons per year.

John Stomp, water resources manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority, said gray-water systems “would have a big impact on outdoor (water) usage.”

However, a $500 rebate offered by the authority for gray-water systems has never been used, though it has been available for two years, he said.

Why? Look at the cost, he said. To retrofit a house with a gray water system could cost $5,000 to $10,000, by his estimate. He said it would cost less if installed in new homes.

He said the water authority’s water-conservation measures – closely mimicked by the draft ordinance – have helped push Albuquerque’s per-capita water use down by 35 percent in 10 years.

The draft ordinance’s other proposed options for meeting conservation goals in the construction of new homes include installing energy-efficient appliances and an on-demand hot water system.

Armijo said the draft had been in the works for about a year. A final version could be approved by January, but getting additional public comment on the regulations could put off an approval until the spring, he said.

The ordinance also proposes banning spray irrigation from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. from April 1 through Oct. 31. Additional restrictions could be imposed if a drought watch is declared by the New Mexico Drought Monitoring Committee.

Armijo would like to see watering restrictions permanently imposed, regardless whether a drought has been declared.

“I don’t think you can look at it for a few months, a few years,” he said. “We’re in a cycle of drought in this community.”

Most of the draft ordinance concerns water-conservation measures for new development, leaving existing homes and other structures unaffected.

A representative with the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico said that’s problematic.

“There’s more to water conservation than just new houses, and new houses are already meeting standards in place by the city,” said Katherine Martinez, the association’s director of government affairs. “Existing houses are the biggest percentage of where water is lost.”

While the proposed regulation doesn’t require water conservation upgrades in existing homes, Martinez said that could be an effective step, and encouraged incentives for such a measure.

“That will save a great deal more water than the new construction,” she said.

The new standards for one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses would take effect in January 2010.

However, developments larger than 10,000 square feet that are not a single-family home would be hit with the new requirements immediately.

Those requirements include installing a gray-water system or collecting rainwater with cisterns.

The lack of time to prepare for new regulations is a concern, said Lynne Andersen, president of the New Mexico Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

“Anything that’s going to be phased in, we can usually deal with it because you can build in those costs at the beginning,” she said.

Armijo said such concerns would be considered, and the ordinance could change before its final approval.

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