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Officials hesitate on reused water rate

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The Rio Rancho Utilities Commission postponed a decision on reused water rates in order to gather more information, despite assurances that a staff recommendation would hurt neither taxpayers nor the city’s ability to meet its pumping permit obligations.

At a special meeting Monday night at City Hall, a motion to table the issue and a motion to accept city staff recommendations both failed on tied votes.

Commissioners Stephan vanHorn, Don Dulac and Moses Winston wanted to wait to make a decision. Commissioners Ron Hensley, Robert Bajek and Garry Lally wanted to go forward with the staff-recommended rate of 30 percent of the potable irrigation water rate.

The District 2 seat on the commission is vacant, so no one could break the tie.

After the two failed motions, commissioners voted unanimously to put a recommendation for reused water rates on the agenda for their next regular meeting March 18.

Prospective Chamisa Hills Country Club buyers Robert Gallagher and Jhett Browne have said they need lower reused water rates to make the club profitable, and time is of the essence so they can start rehabilitating the golf course for the growing season. Their proposal for a reduced rate has sparked discussion on the subject.

Neither man commented at the utilities commission meeting.

The city governing body would have to approve the commission’s recommendation for it to take effect. The matter isn’t on today’s governing body agenda, so it can’t be considered before March 26 without a special meeting.

Staff recommendation

Public Works Director Scott Sensanbaugher recommended the rate for reused water be set at 30 percent of the rate for potable irrigation water.

If the recommendation goes through, recycled water will be $1.64 per 1,000 gallons in July. If not, that rate will go up to $3.28 in July.

“The ratepayers are being made whole and the taxpayers are getting a really good break,” he said.

Sensanbaugher said a 30 percent rate would be a little below costs to the city now, but as the potable irrigation rate undergoes scheduled increases, the recycled rate would rise to allow the city to recover costs for infrastructure installed to create the system and for ongoing operating expenses.

“It also establishes a rate that encourages the use of recycled water, rather than potable water,” he said.

Instead of putting potable water on turf grass, the entities could use recycled water, meaning the city would have to pump less potable water. That would extend the life of the aquifer, Sensanbaugher said.

The parameters for the recommended price were that the reuse rate should be a set percentage of the potable irrigation rate, there should be no special deals for individual entities, rates should take into account city costs for installing and running the system and the price should be “reasonably competitive” with Albuquerque’s reuse rate of $1.76 per 1,000 gallons.

Winston suggested a 50 percent rate and said he still saw a small subsidy in 30 percent.

“I am not particularly enamored of staff’s recommendation,” he said.

Winston wanted to provide special rates for new businesses in town rather than an overall lower cost, and said the city could do better than the staff recommendation.

Hensley said he’d done his own calculations and supported the staff recommendation. He said the city was letting a resource “go down the drain, literally,” by not selling more recycled water instead of putting it back in the Rio Grande.

“I’m not interested in seeing us make a profit off our citizens or businesses,” he said, adding that breaking even was reasonable.

Chamisa Hills Country Club and Vista Verde Memorial Park now irrigate with reused water. A number of city sites are slated to begin using the water by Dec. 1, and Sensanbaugher said Rio Rancho Public Schools administrators are excited to get on the recycled water system, too.

The schools and the city’s general fund would save money with a recycled water rate of 30 percent of the potable irrigation cost, Sensanbaugher said.

Conservation

VanHorn said he wasn’t sure it was good to make Rio Rancho’s rate competitive with Albuquerque’s.

“Your objective with reused water is conservation, and many times a conservation objective would come in conflict with a competitive objective,” he said.

Entities might waste reused water if it was too cheap, vanHorn said.

Sensanbaugher said conservation rules such as not allowing water to run off property and watering only at certain times of day would remain in effect.

Pumping permit

Dulac asked how much recycled water was available for the city to sell and still be able to meet its state-mandated obligations to return water to the Rio Grande.

“We could furnish water to all these users and still be meeting all the obligations we have to the state, and (serve) a lot more users and still meet all our obligations to the state,” Sensanbaugher responded.

Sensanbaugher said the city’s water rights attorney and consultant told him it would be decades or even a century before recycled water use would begin to hurt the city’s ability to meet pumping permit obligations.

 

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