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Water Utility Readies For Third Year Of Drought

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Albuquerque’s water utility has begun preparations for a drought declaration, as a forecast of a third consecutive year of drought threatens New Mexico.

Water users did well last year, despite the drought, Katherine Yuhas, water conservation officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority, told the utility’s board of directors Wednesday evening. Water usage in 2012 averaged 148 gallons per capita across the metro area, down from 150 gallons in 2011, according to Yuhas.

“Our customers did a great job despite the drought,” Yuhas said. The total includes all usage, including parks, businesses and even losses from water main leaks, divided by the number of people in the utility’s service area. The number reflects a steady decline since the mid-1990s, when Albuquerque water usage was above 250 gallons per capita per day.

But with a grim forecast for spring, Yuhas told the board she is preparing a recommendation for a “stage one” drought declaration under a new policy adopted by the water utility last year.

A stage one declaration includes increased fines for water wasting, up from $20 to $40 for the first infraction. Offenses include wasting water by letting sprinkler water run down the gutter or violating daytime watering bans during summer months. Under a stage one declaration, the utility also steps up the number of water conservation classes, with customers getting a $20 break on their bill for attending.

Michael Jensen, Middle Rio Grande projects director for the citizen group Amigos Bravos, told the board that aggressive drought management action is needed this year, in part because the water utility’s program to reduce groundwater pumping and use river water instead has fallen short of its goals. River water made up 43 percent of the utility’s water in 2012, below the goal of 60 to 90 percent set by the agency.

“Maybe you need to take that drought management strategy and push it more aggressively,” Jensen told the board during the meeting’s public comment session.

The utility’s drought discussion comes amid heightened concern among state and local officials about conditions around New Mexico.

At a meeting Wednesday in Santa Fe, state water conservation official John Longworth noted that the past 24 months in New Mexico have been among the driest in history.

“The mid-1950s was the last time it was this dry,” Longworth, who works for the New Mexico Office of State Engineer, told members of the state’s Interstate Stream Commission.

But conditions now are far warmer than in the 1950s, Longworth noted.

Current seasonal forecasts offer little hope, with federal forecasters calling for dry conditions to persist at least through spring, if not longer. Nearly all the state’s reservoirs are extremely low for this time of year, Longworth said.

Of particular concern in Albuquerque is the forecast for a warm spring, according to Yuhas.

That has the tendency to push up water usage as residents begin yard watering early, she said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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