Board declares ‘drought watch’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The board of Albuquerque’s municipal water utility declared a “drought watch” Wednesday, but not before hearing that the measure went too far or that it did not go far enough.

The declaration, which takes effect Friday, triggers increased fines for wasting water and stepped-up education efforts to encourage water conservation.

In a rare break from unanimity among members of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s board, Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz cast the lone “no” on the measure because of concerns about increased water wasting fines.

“I’m as concerned as anyone about the drought, but I’m also concerned about people making ends meet,” De La Cruz said.

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Meanwhile, members of the public testifying at the board meeting suggested that given the current extreme drought conditions, and the water problems faced by farmers and other water users in the Rio Grande Valley this year, the measure did not go far enough.

“I think we have an obligation as citizens of the region to do more,” said Elaine Hebard, an Albuquerque water policy activist. Hebard noted that Albuquerque was already falling behind this year in meeting its goals to reduce groundwater pumping.

The drought watch declaration includes increased fines for water wasting, up from $20 to $40 for the first infraction. Offenses include wasting water by letting sprinkler water run down the gutter or violating daytime watering bans during summer months. The utility also steps up the number of water conservation classes, with customers getting a $20 break on their bill for attending.

The plan approved by the board includes money to hire three additional inspectors to hunt down water waste and money for a stepped-up public relations campaign.

With just 0.58 inch of rain at the Albuquerque airport since Oct. 1, this is the third driest October-February period in more than a century, according to Deirdre Kann of the National Weather Service.

Katherine Yuhas, the utility’s water conservation officer, projected that the drought watch measures would reduce Albuquerque’s groundwater pumping this year by 20 percent.

Yuhas argued against implementing more extreme measures, which could include steep water bill increases for heavy usage and limitations on how often Albuquerque residents and businesses are permitted to water. She said the utility should give the current measure time to work before re-evaluating later in the spring to see whether stronger measures are needed.

Albuquerque’s relatively modest approach to water conservation measures has angered some other water users in the region.

Janet Jarratt, a Valencia County farmer who has long complained that Albuquerque’s voracious water use threatens agricultural water users whose rights date back to before statehood, called the limited nature of the city’s drought measures “ludicrous in the extreme.”

While Albuquerque has access to groundwater when river levels drop, farmers like Jarratt could see their irrigation supplies cut off more than a month early because of the drought, she said.

“This isn’t about not taking an hourlong shower for us,” Jarratt said in an interview Wednesday.

“It’s not about the choice between Bermuda grass and Kentucky bluegrass. It’s about my livelihood, my future, my children’s future and the wildlife we see every day.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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