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Reaching for Water

Water resources specialist Sara Chudnoff measures the depth to groundwater in a well. (pat vasquez-cunningham/journal)
Water resources specialist Sara Chudnoff measures the depth to groundwater in a well. (pat vasquez-cunningham/journal)
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SANDIA KNOLLS — A light snow fell as Sara Chudnoff expertly fitted the acoustic sounder to the top of Kathy McCoy and David Holcomb’s water well.

The little high-tech box bounced sound waves down the well and off the water table below, measuring the sound waves’ travel time to determine the precise depth to groundwater.

In neighborhoods like Sandia Knolls, in the Sandia Mountains’ eastern foothills, depth to groundwater matters. There is no big municipal water utility here to provide water to each house the way the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility does to city residents. Individual water wells or small community systems are the only source of supply. For many residents, water levels are dropping.

Bernalillo County water resources specialist Sara Chudnoff, right, talks with homeowners Kathy McCoy and David Holcomb about groundwater in the East Mountains. Chudnoff works with homeowners to track groundwater conditions in the area.

“There’s a world of difference between being hooked up to a utility and having your own well,” Holcomb explained. For example, Holcomb installed cisterns to catch roof water to irrigate his beloved gardens, something uncommon in the city, but necessary in a place like this.

And, with Chudnoff’s help, McCoy and Holcomb carefully watch the levels in their well.The visit by Chudnoff, a water resources specialist for Bernalillo County, is part of a voluntary program to routinely measure the depth to groundwater in residential wells. For residents, it provides data to help manage their water supply, and the county hopes it will help provide data on what is happening to the region’s vital, but sometimes poorly understood, aquifer.

So far, 107 residents have signed up, according to Chudnoff.

The geology of the East Mountain area, a growing bedroom community on the eastern side of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains, is complex, a fractured mix of bedrock broken up by the mountain-building process and valley fill created by eons of erosion. Drinking-water wells are poked like straws into the aquifer, but the complexity of the environment has left a great deal of uncertainty about where the water is, how much is there, and its quality.

The goal, said Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, is to get a clearer understanding of the water situation, given the fact that residents have no good alternative.

“There’s really not a lot of available solutions to bad water, or unavailable water,” Johnson said.

Bernalillo County water resources specialist Sara Chudnoff processes data she has been collecting about groundwater in the county’s East Mountain neighborhoods. (pat vasquez-cunningham/journal)

At the McCoy-Holcomb household’s side yard, Chudnoff jotted “355.6″ in her notebook before putting a cap back on the well. It was good news. The well’s levels have been steady of late, not dropping.

That is not the case for many of their neighbors. “Redrills,” where residents have to have a new well drilled after the water table drops away from their old one, have been common of late, according to David Massey, who runs Sandia Well Service. “The number of redrills is up from previous years,” Massey said.

Drought is part of the story, along with population growth.

“People moving into the area puts pressure on the resources,” he said.

Chudnoff’s data collection and analysis is preliminary. Some wells, like the one at McCoy and Holcomb’s house, are stable. In the Frost Road area, one of the hotbeds for redrilling, well drops have varied from 1 to 17 feet.

The hardest-hit area, according to the preliminary data, appears to be the State Route 14 corridor, where Chudnoff has seen wells drop anywhere from 25 to 40 feet in the short time she has been collecting data.

For a homeowner, dealing with a dropping well can be an expensive problem, with costs for redrilling or sinking a new well ranging from $12,000 to $20,000, Massey said.

A measuring tape is dropped down an old well at one of the county’s East Mountain fire stations, part of an effort to measure groundwater conditions in the area.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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