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Tighter Water Measures Urged

Drought parched the Rio Grande this year, and local officials are discussing the best way to reduce Albuquerque water usage as forecasters say there is a significant risk of another dry year ahead. (pat vasquez-Cunningham/journal)
Drought parched the Rio Grande this year, and local officials are discussing the best way to reduce Albuquerque water usage as forecasters say there is a significant risk of another dry year ahead. (pat vasquez-Cunningham/journal)
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As Albuquerque’s water utility sees it, residents have done a reasonably good job of coping with this year’s crushing drought, with consumption up a bit more than 1 percent.

But the water utility’s critics say stricter measures are needed to encourage residents to use less.

The question will come before the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board this evening, with a request to extend the current voluntary “drought advisory” program into the winter.

Water conservation advocates question whether the utility is doing enough, arguing that stricter measures are called for to prepare for what forecasters say could be a second dry year. Despite this year’s extreme conditions, the utility only called an “advisory,” which calls for public education and advertising, but no mandatory watering cutbacks.

Hot temperatures and a weak summer monsoon caused residents to water their yards more this year. “Our summer usage was definitely higher,” said Katherine Yuhas, water conservation officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Albuquerque’s official rainfall total, measured at the airport, is just 3.35 inches since Jan. 1, less than half of normal and the fourth-driest year to date since record keeping began a century ago, according to Ed Polasko with the National Weather Service. Other weather stations in the city got more, but all are well below average.

A La Niña weather pattern is growing in the Pacific, and federal forecasters say the odds are tilted toward another dry winter in New Mexico.

Polasko and Yuhas are on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the water utility board, to discuss current drought conditions and plans for the future.

In asking for a continuation of the drought advisory, Yuhas in a written report to the board recommended that the current drought campaign, which includes advertising and water bill inserts, be continued through the winter.

For example, the drought advertising reminds residents to cut back their watering to twice a week outdoors during October and November. Critics point out that is the same advice the utility gives at this time of year during nondrought conditions.

From Jan. 1 through the end of September, according to water utility reports to state regulators, the utility pumped 28.4 billion gallons of water to its customers, up from 28 billion gallons for the same period last year, an increase of slightly more than 1 percent.

Elaine Hebard with the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly, a water advocacy group, said stronger action is needed to prepare Albuquerque residents for the possibility of a dry 2012.

That means the utility needs to “acknowledge that we are facing at least another year of drought and prepare the public for what will need to be done,” Hebard said. “That means that action has to be taken now and not next year.”

Yuhas said the fact that Albuquerque water use increased so little despite the extreme drought is evidence that the modest campaign under the current drought advisory has been sufficient.

“It seemed like things were well controlled,” she said of this year’s water usage.

Yuhas said she would prefer to save more extreme measures, such as mandatory watering restrictions, only if the situation gets more dire.

The agenda for this evening’s board meeting includes an update on spreading contamination from a Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill.

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the City Council chambers at Albuquerque City Hall.

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