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Total ABQ water use lowest in 30 years

Rick Hobson of Albuquerque's Jericho Nursery has no choice but to keep watering the plants at his store. At home, however, he has strung together four rain barrels and uses the water from his washing machine in his garden. "I use the water twice and I feel good about that," he said. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Rick Hobson of Albuquerque’s Jericho Nursery has no choice but to keep watering the plants at his store. At home, however, he has strung together four rain barrels and uses the water from his washing machine in his garden. “I use the water twice and I feel good about that,” he said. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Despite drought, the city consumed 32 billion gallons of water in 2013, down 7% over the previous year and the biggest one-year drop since 1997

Albuquerque water users responded to the drought of 2013 by reducing their water use 7 percent, the biggest one-year drop since 1997, according to a year-end report from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

The community’s total water use for the year, 32 billion gallons, was the lowest for the metro area since 1983, despite the fact that the population in the utility’s service area has grown 70 percent in the two decades since, according to Katherine Yuhas.

While the biggest savings came in the rainy months of July and September, the conservation continued through the end of the year, even as the weather dried out again and drought conditions returned.

Savings came in both indoor and outdoor water use, Yuhas said. While incentive programs, like rebates for tearing out lawn, likely played a role, a big part of the reduction was simply the evolution of the community’s changing attitudes about conserving water, according to Yuhas. “It’s all human behavior,” she said. “It’s all people doing the right thing.”

PrintIncreasing water rates, especially for heavy water users, also seem to have played a role. Rick Hobson, owner of Jericho Nursery in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, said new surcharges for high water use have driven up his water bills. He mulches and tries to shade plants in the summer to reduce his consumption, but to operate his business he has no choice but continue watering the plants.

At his North Valley home, he’s taken an aggressive approach to water conservation, with four rain barrels that he also fills with grey water from his washing machine. “It’s not the money,” he said. “I use the water twice and I feel good about that.”

Albuquerque water use began dropping in May and June, even as drought left the Rio Grande nearly dry and Albuquerque gardens parched. Rainy weather in July and a record wet September eased drought conditions, but the weather has been dry again since October. The latest forecast calls for low runoff on the state’s rivers in 2014, with odds favoring warm and dry weather in New Mexico through spring. Bernalillo County is currently classified as being in “moderate drought,” according to the weekly federal Drought Monitor.

Research on consumer behavior suggests increased awareness of water scarcity and drought conditions translates to reduced water usage, said Janie Chermak, a University of New Mexico economist.

Albuquerque’s experience with a steady drop in water use over the last three years of drought is consistent with many other places in the industrialized world, according to Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank. For example, between 2005 and 2008, in the midst of a deep drought, the people of Queensland in northeast Australia cut their residential water use in half. Israel has seen similar success, according to Cohen.

But conservation also comes with a price for utilities like Albuquerque’s that depend on water sales for their revenue. Most of the costs of running a water system, for the pipes and the water treatment systems, are fixed, not dropping when water use declines. In Albuquerque, water utility officials are currently juggling their fiscal year 2013-14 budget because the water conservation success has translated to revenue shortfalls. Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño, at a meeting in December, said rate increases are “probably inevitable.”

The Albuquerque water authority will have a better idea of its financial situation once the agency sees users’ spring water use numbers, agency spokesman David Morris said Friday. The agency’s board is scheduled to get an update on its financial situation at its Jan. 29 meeting.