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Water Project Math: $6.7 Million, Seven Hookups

Becky Gutierrez has been spearheading an effort to win state and federal funding to extend a line to the community of Carnuel to replace contaminated well water. But now that the water has arrived, few residents are signing up to use it. Photo Credit - Dean Hanson/Journal
Becky Gutierrez has been spearheading an effort to win state and federal funding to extend a line to the community of Carnuel to replace contaminated well water. But now that the water has arrived, few residents are signing up to use it. Photo Credit - Dean Hanson/Journal
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CARNUEL — State and federal taxpayers are paying $6.7 million to extend water lines to carry clean water to the tiny community of Carnuel, in Tijeras Canyon east of Albuquerque.

But most of the residents eligible to connect don’t seem to want the water. After pushing hard to win outside financial support for the project, community leaders have been unable to persuade most of their neighbors to pay the final cost of hooking up. So far, just seven of the 50 eligible residents in the project’s first, completed phase have done so.

Plagued with wells contaminated by area septic systems, the community is in critical need of clean water, say project advocates, led by some neighborhood residents and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. They have put intense political pressure on the federal government to fund the next phases of the water line’s extension.

The taxpayer subsidy — grants from the New Mexico State Water Trust Board, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other sources — amounts to $67,000 per home eligible to receive water from the system. That pays the cost of laying water lines from the water authority’s nearest Northeast Heights reservoir up Tijeras Canyon and into the neighborhoods.

To get water from that pipe to their homes, residents then need to pay the water utility a $2,987 connection fee. Ten-year financing at a 7 percent interest rate offered by the agency means a $430 down payment and $28.72 per month for access to the clean water. In addition to the hookup costs, residents must also pay the $1,000 to $2,000 to install the pipe from the street to their house, according to Frank Roth of the Water Utility Authority.

“Most of the people are saying, ‘I don’t have the money,’ ” said Becky Gutierrez, head of the Carnuel Mutual Domestic Water and Wastewater Consumers Association, the community organization spearheading the project.

Instead, to avoid the nitrates and other contamination found in their well water, they buy bottled water for drinking in their homes while using well water for other purposes, said Gutierrez, whose family has lived in the community of about 800 for generations. The contamination is especially dangerous for babies and the elderly.

The lack of willingness to connect now that agencies have spent the money to extend the lines has been met with frustration from government officials working on the project.

“To say that I’m a little disappointed with the number of hookups to this point would be an understatement,” said Wayne Johnson, who represents the area on the Bernalillo County Commission.

The project has drawn public attention in recent months because of a dispute between the water utility and the U.S. Department of Agriculture over money to further extend the water lines.

The utility has accused the federal agency of reneging on a grant promised to Carnuel in 2005 to fund further expansion of the system. In a resolution passed late last year, the utility’s board demanded the agency “stop placing artificial roadblocks to this project and start being accountable to residents of New Mexico.”

Federal officials say Carnuel failed to live up to the terms of the 2005 grant and has rescinded it so the money could be made available to help other rural communities, said Terry Brunner, head of the USDA’s Albuquerque office.

The USDA, Carnuel and the Water Utility have been in discussions about the possibility of another grant or loan but Carnuel is competing with communities around the state pursuing the same shrinking pool of dollars, Brunner said.

This year, his agency has $3.3 million in grant funding and another $8 million in loan funding available in New Mexico, with requests for $30 million. One of the factors the agency considers is cost effectiveness of the project, and the fact that so few Carnuel residents are hooking up works against them, Brunner said.

Water deal

After struggling on its own for years to put together a water system, the neighbors signed an agreement in 2008 to partner with the water utility. Money has come mainly from the New Mexico Water Trust Board, a state agency. The EPA also provided money, and the project received a $1 million grant from the federal economic stimulus program. In total, the project has received $6.7 million in grants to date, according to Roth.

That money is paying for the first phase of the project. The water utility built a line from the Supper Rock Park neighborhood in the Sandia foothills up Tijeras Canyon along Interstate 40 and into the neighborhood. The line already reaches 50 houses, and another 50 will eventually have access to water based on funding already in hand.

But Johnson, Gutierrez and others said once the line was extended, it has been a struggle to convince neighbors that they should take the next step and pay for connections to their homes.

“We can’t just force people to hook up,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he expects the water use to increase once the lines are extended farther east, where water contamination is worse. As currently proposed, the project would eventually reach 800 existing homes in Tijeras Canyon at a current estimated cost of $20 million to $25 million, but at this point the agencies working on the project have not been able to identify how those later phases will be funded.

Homeowners farther up the canyon, who would not receive water until funding is found to build later phases, are more likely to connect because their water contamination problems are more serious, said Becky DuMond, a resident in one of the neighborhoods not yet reached by the pipes.

“Some of the people who need it worst are people out at the end of the system,” she said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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