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State out to avert water crises

The drought has hit New Mexico’s smaller communities hard, such as Magdalena, whose main well went dry in June when the water table took a deep drop. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
The drought has hit New Mexico’s smaller communities hard, such as Magdalena, whose main well went dry in June when the water table took a deep drop. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
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N.M. task force will assist drought-susceptible towns

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly 300 New Mexico community water systems are vulnerable to drought, dropping water tables and aging infrastructure, according to a review to be made public today by a state task force.

One of the most common problems, say officials involved in the review, occurs when a town or village depends on a single water source. If that becomes contaminated or runs dry, the community is in trouble.

A state program will help do the engineering work to identify a backup water source and the task force, led by the New Mexico Environment Department, will begin contacting at-risk communities this week with offers of help.

With a handful of New Mexico communities, most notably Magdalena and Maxwell, already facing water supply crises, the coalition of government agencies and nonprofits is trying to help water system operators prepare so they don’t become the next town to make the news with pictures of dry wells and trucked-in water.

The village of Maxwell in northeast New Mexico ran out of water earlier this year, and wells such as this one were eventually restored. A state task force has been formed to help communities avert such crises in the future. (Roberto E. Rosales/ Albuquerque Journal)

The village of Maxwell in northeast New Mexico ran out of water earlier this year, and wells such as this one were eventually restored. A state task force has been formed to help communities avert such crises in the future. (Roberto E. Rosales/ Albuquerque Journal)

“We’d like to get people in the state to change the way we think about water,” said Ryan Flynn, secretary-designate of the Environment Department. “We just turn the tap and expect the water to flow.”

With drought putting pressure on supplies, small communities around New Mexico are seeing wells filling with silt and failing, said Matt Holmes, executive director of the New Mexico Rural Water Association, one of NMED’s partners in the project.

Small water systems’ problems are compounded by the fact that their management often falls to volunteers, he said. Holmes said problems this year appear worse than during the last deep drought years of 2002-03.

The state will offer to help communities develop water monitoring and emergency response programs.

Conservation also will be a key element, officials said, because using less water is often far less expensive than building infrastructure to supply more.

In addition to direct assistance in taking basic steps to improve water systems’ sustainability, the state will offer help connecting communities with available government funding sources for more expensive improvements, Flynn said.

One of the most important steps, according to Danielle Shuryn of the state’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure Group, is routine monitoring of the depth to groundwater in a community’s wells. “That’s the first step,” Shuryn said. Quarterly measurements are the usual standard, she said.

When Magdalena’s primary water well went dry in June, village officials acknowledged they hadn’t checked its water levels since April 2012.

Emergency planning also is critical, Shuryn said – knowing where a backup supply might be available and how it might be brought in to supplement a community’s system. Neighboring water systems, for example, can develop plans ahead of time to truck water to one another in a crisis.

“The emergency is less of an emergency when we have plans to deal with it,” she said.

While the initial round of letters will go to the 290 community water systems determined to be at greatest risk, the state plans to make the program open to any interested water system, Shuryn said.

Initial training sessions for water system managers are planned for the New Mexico Rural Water Association’s conferences at the Taos Convention Center Oct. 15-17 and at the Las Cruces Hotel Encanto Nov. 12-14.

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