Editorial: Strong conservation, new projects paint a bright water future - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Strong conservation, new projects paint a bright water future

Unless you are talking about drought or floods, water can be a bit of a dry topic.

But here in the desert Southwest, it’s an incredibly important one. And thanks to efforts by conservation-minded Albuquerque metro-area residents, and the foresight and efficiency of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, our water future is bright.

Back in the last century, we thought we were sitting on a virtually unlimited aquifer – actually promoted as a “Lake Superior” beneath our feet. Much to our chagrin, that turned out not to be true. In fact, our profligate pumping of groundwater was rapidly depleting that precious resource.

The response over the years has been impressive, right up to news earlier this month Albuquerque metro-area water users in 2019 cut their per-capita consumption to a record low 121 gallons a day – despite last year being warmer and drier than normal.

That was down from 125 gallons per day in 2018 – and from a whopping 252 gallons per capita per day in 1994 when the Water Authority instituted its first conservation program.

Yes, water costs more than it used to. But unless you want a golf course in your back yard, it’s still a good deal. Especially considering it’s a resource we can’t live without.

Conservation efforts have been remarkably successful, from water audits to low-flow toilets to waterwise landscaping (and no, that’s not “zeroscape”).

“Our previous conservation programs focused on indoor water efficiency, and now we’re moving more to outdoor water efficiency,” says Water Authority conservation manager Carlos Bustos, who noted city and county parks last year cut their total use by 200 million gallons. “It’s about changing the culture and overall approach to how we water our landscapes.”

But our water future depends on more than conservation.

One key change was the San Juan-Chama diversion project that carries water into the Rio Grande, where the Water Authority takes it for drinking water. In a smart move, the authority will use a new injection well to pump treated river water back into the aquifer as a future water savings account. The brand new $2 million well at the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Treatment plant in north Albuquerque is key to the city’s aquifer and recovery plan and is capable of sending 3,000 gallons a minute directly into the aquifer 1,200 feet below, where it can be stored without risk of evaporation. The goal is to store 1.6 billion gallons a year.

How is the aquifer doing?

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

The Water Authority has 600 employees, 200,000 customers and an operating budget of $230 million. (It also runs the sewage treatment operation.) It is governed by an appointed board of city and county officials – County Commissoner Debbie O’Malley is current chair. To the credit of board members over the years, their focus has been on the pragmatic rather than the political. State lawmakers have wisely resisted efforts to make it an elected board.

Mark Sanchez has been executive director since 2004, and during his tenure the Water Authority has taken the long view, developing a 100-year plan that considers population growth and the potential impact of climate change. It builds on success and guides future investments in conservation, aquifer storage and recovery, storm water capture and wastewater use.

In short, it ensures a reliable water supply while wisely managing and preserving the aquifer.

So whether you like your H2O straight up or on the rocks, here’s a toast to the success of the Water Authority’s conservation efforts, and to the Albuquerque residents who made it possible.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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