Per capita usage is down 40 percent from 1994, when the utility launched a major water conservation effort after experts realized Albuquerque was draining the groundwater reservoir that serves the city. Daily usage at the time was 252 gallons per person. (Story continues below)
In the years since, water conservation efforts have ranged from toilet and lawn removal rebates to mandatory watering times to billboards and advertising campaigns. Albuquerque also has benefited from changing appliance standards, which has made water-conserving toilets, dishwashers and the like routine.
The state in 2004 set a legally binding benchmark of 155 gallons per person per day, which Albuquerque was supposed to meet by 2024. The benchmark was set as part of Albuquerque’s permit to begin using imported San Juan River Basin water as part of the city’s drinking water supply.
Racing past that milestone 13 years early, Albuquerque now will begin a process of deciding what further long-range water conservation goals should look like, said Katherine Yuhas, water conservation officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
Albuquerque’s conservation efforts won widespread praise.
“Albuquerque’s done pretty darn good,” said Tom Turney, who served as state engineer, New Mexico’s top water official, when some of the early water conservation efforts were launched.
“This is really good news, and I congratulate the water users here for conserving,” said Elaine Hebard, an Albuquerque activist who has pushed for stronger water conservation efforts.
“We’re doing really well,” said Bruce Thomson, head of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.
Thomson noted that the water utility’s substantial savings achieved since the 1990s demonstrates that water conservation can be done with relatively modest impacts on the community. “They’ve done it without too much heartburn,” Thomson said.
Albuquerque’s reduced usage is a demonstration that, despite the dry climate and dwindling water supplies, it is possible for cities in the western United States to learn to live within their means, said Michael Cohen, a water policy analyst with the Pacific Institute, a California-based think tank.
“Continued reductions are still possible and achievable,” said Cohen. “At some point there’s a wall, but I think we’re a long way from that.”
By comparison, Santa Fe has reduced its usage to 106 gallons per person per day, according to water conservation officer Dan Ransom.
While Albuquerque’s per capita use has dropped 40 percent, population growth since the mid-1990s has erased some of the savings. In 1994, before water conservation efforts began, Albuquerque used 40.6 billion gallons. That dropped to 34.6 billion gallons in 2011, according to Yuhas, a 25 percent decline, even as population in the water utility’s service area grew from 441,450 to 634,284.
Yuhas said the utility’s next step will be to hold a series of town hall and neighborhood association meetings to begin a discussion about what Albuquerque’s water goals should be going forward.
Thomson agreed something of that sort is needed. With continued pressure between agricultural use, city consumption and water for the environment, Albuquerque continues to face difficult choices, Thomson said.
“We as a community need to decide what our water future is going to be,” he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal