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Aquifer on the rebound

Water flows down Bear Canyon Arroyo in November 2014 as part of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s aquifer storage and recovery project. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Journal Staff Writer

More than 20 years of water conservation efforts and a massive river water treatment project are paying off for Albuquerque.

Groundwater levels in the aquifer underneath the city are on the rise, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report, prepared in May by the USGS and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said groundwater withdrawals have been reduced by 67% from 2008 to 2016. USGS prepares aquifer withdrawal maps for Albuquerque every four years.

“The San Juan-Chama project has had a huge impact on allowing the aquifer to rebound,” said John Bumgarner, director of the USGS New Mexico Water Science Center. “Groundwater levels in parts of the aquifer have risen as much as 30 to 40 feet from 2008 to 2016.”

Global groundwater supplies are under increasing strain because of high demand. The Global Resources Institute labeled New Mexico the most water-stressed state in the nation; the state as a whole withdraws 80% of its available water supply each year.

But Bumgarner said Albuquerque is a “unique” case of aquifer rebound.

That is a dramatic change from 20 years ago, when Albuquerque relied completely on groundwater from the aquifer to meet its water needs. Now, a majority of Albuquerque’s water comes from surface water due to the San Juan-Chama river project completed in 2008.

And, through the years, Albuquerqueans have cut their water use in half through switching out grass for xeriscape, low-flow plumbing and other measures.

How did we get here?

Katherine Yuhas, water resources division manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said Albuquerque water use and management once operated on the idea that there was a limitless supply of groundwater beneath the city.

“I grew up here, and we were taught that we essentially lived on top of Lake Superior,” Yuhas said. “There were even advertisements of Albuquerque as a ‘great American city on a large body of water,’ with images of someone windsurfing on a lake in front of our Downtown buildings.”

That thinking changed in the mid-1990s, when data from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources showed the aquifer was smaller than originally thought, and was dropping by several feet per year in some areas.

At the time, Albuquerque pumped the aquifer to supply most of its drinking water, which is also used for watering plants, bathing and any household use.

The city adopted a water conservation program after learning of the aquifer’s true size and rapid depletion.

“We found out that our use of the aquifer was not sustainable,” Yuhas said. “We replaced thousands of toilets and removed millions of square feet of turf. It really changed our outdoor aesthetic to xeriscape. Before the mid-1990s, neighborhood associations were requiring people to put in grass. Then we transitioned to education about water use and incentives for conserving water.”

Those programs helped reduce Albuquerque water use from 251 gallons per person per day in 1995 to 125 gallons per person per day in 2018, Yuhas said.

The focus on conservation slowed the aquifer depletion. But another big change was needed so the aquifer could recharge.

San Juan-Chama project

Albuquerque draws from the Santa Fe group aquifer system in the Middle Rio Grande Basin.

Bumgarner said the basin-fill aquifer is fairly well-connected. It is recharged by snowmelt and rainfall at the mountain front, seepage from the Rio Grande, arroyos, irrigated areas like golf courses and parks, and leakage from water distribution systems.

The water authority’s San Juan-Chama diversion project, completed in 2008, was a $475 million investment to use surface water from the Colorado River Basin. Albuquerque bought those water rights in the 1960s.

The funds paid for a tunnel to get water from the San Juan River to the Chama River, which empties into the Rio Grande. An adjustable diversion dam and intake structure, water treatment plant and fish passage were also part of the project.

The project is delivering on its promise to restore the aquifer.

In 2016, the San Juan-Chama project provided for 70% of the city’s water demand. Yuhas said because of last year’s drought, the city used 54% surface water and 46% groundwater, but “this year will be closer to the 2016 numbers.”

Looking ahead

The water authority continues to look forward. ABCWUA has adopted a 100-year water management plan called Water 2120, which includes a new water conservation goal of 110 gallons per person per day by 2037.

“The idea of Water 2120 policies is that in 100 years, Albuquerque residents will have the same access to water resources that we do now,” Yuhas said. “We’re doing that by taking water from the river in the winter and storing it in the aquifer. We also plan to increase our use of treated wastewater.”

Yuhas said the city has one of the nation’s best water conservation programs, thanks in part to water-conscious residents and businesses.

“In this time of climate change, it’s unique to be building up a reserve,” Yuhas said. “That makes Albuquerque a stable, resilient city for water.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.


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