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City celebrates decade of surface water use

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Scott Salvas, chief engineer of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s surface water division, shows where purified water is pumped out to the city at the Surface Water Treatment Plant on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the early 1990s, Albuquerque was faced with a water crisis. The aquifer, upon which the city depended wholly for its drinking water, was dropping by three to five feet per year.

Back then, the plan was that Colorado River Basin water purchased by the city in the early 1960s and which flows to Albuquerque through a series of tunnels and diversion channels would naturally replenish the aquifer.

“The problem was that we found out that only about half of what we were pumping from the aquifers was being replenished by the river,” said John Stomp, chief operating officer of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. “Instead of them sort of being in equilibrium, the aquifer was dropping.”

So the city turned to surface water in hopes of stopping the emptying of the aquifer.

On Wednesday, city officials celebrated the 10th anniversary of the $450 million solution that has decreased the city’s reliance on groundwater by 70 percent.

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Central control operator Rudy Mirabal monitors the city’s surface water treatment plant. The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project is celebrating 10 years of operation this week. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“Getting it out of the river, making it safe to drink, distributing it to customers, educating the community about the need for all of this; these were complex and expensive problems,” said Albuquerque City Councilor and Chair of the Water Utility Authority Board Trudy Jones during a news conference at the water treatment plant in northeast Albuquerque.

The plant, which sits on 110 acres, takes in tens of million of gallons of muddy Rio Grande water daily, transforming it into water clean enough to drink.

Jones said the plant has treated 137 billion gallons in its decade in operation.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said the San Juan-Chama surface water treatment project combined with other conservation efforts undertaken by the city have put Albuquerque in a better situation with regards to water.

“By diversifying Albuquerque’s water sources, we have improved the sustainability and resilience of our city at a time when climate change is creating increased risks,” Fleck said. “To have the aquifer to back us up, it gives us a lot more flexibility to deal with risks.”

The water authority isn’t resting on its laurels, though.

In the works is an aquifer recharge well, which will pump excess treated water into the groundwater.

“That way, in times of drought or when we need that water we can extract it and send it out to customers,” said Scott Salvas, chief engineer at the water treatment plant.

Salvas said the water authority will probably start pumping around 5 million gallons daily into the aquifer during the winter months when water demand is low.

It’s expected to go online within the next couple months, Salvas said.

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Rio Grande water goes through one of its first purification steps as sediment is allowed to settle out of the water at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority Surface Water Treatment Plant on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

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