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Water authority unveils aquifer injection well

Diane Agnew, project manager for the water authority’s new aquifer injection well, helps demonstrate the well last week at Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Treatment Plant. (Source: Water Utility Authority)

A new injection well built by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority will pump treated river water back into the aquifer for future use in the metro area. The $2 million well, built at the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Treatment Plant in north Albuquerque, is key to the city’s aquifer storage and recovery plan.

Project manager Diane Agnew said the well, which is the first of its kind in the city, is a “success for Albuquerque’s water sustainability.”

“This is like a ‘water savings account’ that builds up over time,” she said. “The injection well gives us an alternate source to meet our long-term water demand. It lets us take (treated) San Juan-Chama water and store it in the aquifer, where it won’t evaporate.”

The San Juan-Chama project diverts surface water from the San Juan River in Colorado through a tunnel to the Chama River, which empties into the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Project water eventually flows through an Albuquerque intake structure and is treated at a water authority plant.

To access the stored aquifer water, the new well pumps can be “flipped” from injection to extraction.

The project expands on the city’s efforts to recharge the aquifer and address long-term water demand.

Each winter, San Juan-Chama water is released into the Bear Canyon Arroyo. That water infiltrates the ground and eventually ends up in the aquifer.

Agnew said the Bear Canyon setup takes advantage of the arroyo’s natural recharge mechanism, but the water may evaporate before it seeps into the ground, and it can take as long as six weeks to reach the aquifer.

The new injection well can send 3,000 gallons of water a minute directly into the aquifer 1,200 feet below the well site, where it can be stored without risk of evaporation. Injected well water reaches groundwater in just a few days.

“We have a soft goal of injecting 5,000 acre-feet (about 1.6 billion gallons) a year,” Agnew said, “But that will vary, depending on how much San Juan-Chama water is available each year.”

As with the arroyo project, water will be injected at the well site from October to March, when water demand is lower.

The water authority has worked with the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources to identify other areas in the city which would be optimal for future aquifer injection wells.

Albuquerque’s shift away from pumping groundwater has spurred recovery of the aquifer underneath the city.

A report released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey showed city groundwater withdrawals had dropped by 67% from 2008 to 2016. Aquifer levels in some parts of Albuquerque rose as much as 40 feet during that time.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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