Albuquerque’s water and sewer utility, facing hundreds of millions of dollars in costs over the next decade to replace aging pipes and treatment plants, is considering a series of rate increases in the next five years.
When the last of the proposed rate hikes takes effect, the average residential customer’s bill would rise to $54 per month, up from $45 today, according to Mark Sanchez, executive director of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority – an additional $108 per year for the average customer by 2017.
More than 400 miles of metro area water and sewer pipe are at high risk of failure, according to a study done for the water utility and the backlog of aging pipes that need replacement is growing because of inadequate funding.
The utility’s board already has approved two rate increases. The first, which took effect last July, ranged from 9 to 19 percent for different classes of residential customers and 15 percent for commercial customers. The second increase, to take effect next year, would average 5 percent, but details of impacts on various classes of customers have not yet been determined.
The water utility board on Wednesday will consider additional 5 percent increases in 2015 and 2017.
Beyond aging pipes, the utility, the government agency that provides water and sewer service to some 600,000 metro area residents, also is in the midst of a $250 million reconstruction of Albuquerque’s primary sewage treatment plant.
Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered the utility to come up with a plan to fix the plant in Bernalillo County’s South Valley after malfunctioning equipment led to discharges that killed fish in the Rio Grande.
“Pretty much from start to finish, we’re rehabbing the entire plant,” David Price, the agency’s chief engineer, said during a recent tour of the site.
But the problems go well beyond the treatment plant, including aging sewer lines that frequently break and water pipes nearing the end of their useful life, Price said.
For example, large areas of the city receive their water through steel pipes installed in Albuquerque’s post-World War II building boom that are near or sometimes past their expected 50-year life spans.
“A lot of those pipes have come due, are often past due, to be replaced,” Price said.
A study completed last year concluded that 95 miles of the utility’s more than 3,000 miles of water pipes are rated at “high probability” of failing. More than 300 miles of the utility’s 2,400 miles of sewer pipe are in the high risk category.
Sewer pipe breaks are especially costly, Price said, because of the expense not only of digging up streets to replace pipe, but also the cost of pumping sewage around the break point. Inserting liners in at-risk pipe is significantly more cost-effective than replacing it after it breaks, Price said. Replacing 250 feet of sewer pipe that recently broke near the intersection of Coors and Rio Bravo SW is costing the utility $700,000, Price said.
The rate increases also will provide money to increase the amount held in the utility’s reserve fund for emergencies. Standard and Poor’s earlier this year downgraded the utility’s bond rating after the reserve funds dropped.
In the long run, the work should reduce the utility’s operating costs because so much work is currently devoted to repairing broken pipes, Sanchez said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal