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New Mexico Science

Science, climate, weather and water from a New Mexico perspective

Water use to rise 21% by 2024

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New long-range conservation plan aims to cut consumption as Albuquerque population grows

Albuquerque’s water use is expected to rise 21 percent by 2024, as population growth outstrips conservation efforts, according to a new long-range plan approved Wednesday evening.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility board approved a new conservation strategy aimed at reducing per-capita consumption to 135 gallons per person per day by 2024, a 9 percent reduction from the current 148 gallons.

But with population in the utility’s service area projected to grow from the current 640,000 to 810,000 by 2024, overall water use is expected to rise, according to an analysis by Katherine Yuhas, the water utility’s conservation officer.

The approval came with some sharp questions. Two members of the utility’s board of directors questioned whether the agency’s conservation efforts would be enough given the serious long-term water problems the community faces.

Albuquerque in the past five years has begun shifting to water imported from the Colorado River Basin in an effort to limit what water managers concluded was unsustainable use of groundwater. But a recent federal study concluded that climate change would make that imported water source less reliable in coming decades.

Given the dire warnings, “this just seems like a very modest effort,” said Maggie Hart Stebbins, who represents the Bernalillo County Commission on the public agency’s board.

“I would hope that we could be a lot more aggressive,” said Ken Sanchez, one of the Albuquerque City Council’s representatives on the water agency governing body.

Pursuit of more ambitious conservation goals would be costly, explained Yuhas, saying the agency would have to invest more in things like customer rebates.

Despite their concerns, Hart Stebbins and Sanchez joined a unanimous board in approving the 10-year plan.

To get to 135 gallons per person per day, the approach developed by Yuhas and her colleagues after a series of public meetings calls for expanding education efforts, work on building code updates, rainwater harvesting and a new “Test Your Toilet Month” campaign.

The move comes as dry conditions are testing the water utility’s supply system. Drinking-water diversions from the Rio Grande will likely be halted by July 1 as drought drops river levels, forcing the utility to switch entirely to groundwater pumping to meet demand during the heat of the summer, according to John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer. With the dry weather, Albuquerque customers used 11.7 billion gallons of water through the end of May, up 1 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the water utility’s most recent monthly report to the state.

Also Wednesday, the water utility’s board approved a slight rate break for its thriftiest residential customers, along with increases of 6 to 7 percent for most other users.

A typical low-use homeowner would see their average monthly water bill drop from $35.52 to $35.13, according to a staff analysis. A typical high water user would see their average monthly bill rise from $63.22 to $67.87.

The new rates go into effect July 1, meaning customers will see the changes in their August bill, according to agency spokesman David Morris.

The increase feeds into a $246 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The budget includes $20 million to accelerate work on replacement of the utility’s aging South Valley sewage treatment plant.

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