Monday, September 07, 2009
Mayoral Hopefuls Tackle Water
By Sean Olson
Journal Staff Writer
You can't talk about Albuquerque's future without talking about water, and the current crop of candidates for mayor is starting to wade in.
The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project opened this year to provide surface water to the city, a 50-years-in-the-making public works project that will wean the city off heavy pumping of the underground aquifer.
But the new system comes with a cost: Mandatory conservation measures imposed by the state water engineer require the city to drop from the current 162 gallons a person average to 155 gallons per day or face the prospect of losing the new water source.
With Albuquerque's Oct. 6 election nearing, the Journal interviewed the three candidates for mayor about conservation measures, future planning and a water utility that is not directly controlled by the city. In the broadest sense, they were quizzed about how they would approach Albuquerque's water future.
Incumbent Martin Chávez had the rosiest view. He said that, although there are plenty of opportunities to improve water policies, residents are well taken care of.
"Our overall water future is bright," Chávez said.
Candidate Richard Romero, a former educator and state Senate leader, said the city could be in real trouble if it doesn't improve working relationships and water planning with surrounding communities, pueblos and governments.
"The most important thing a leader can do is work with other people," Romero said.
Candidate Richard Berry, a general contractor and state representative, said the city needs to be a "good steward" of its current water supply and look to acquiring more water rights for sustained growth.
He said new supplies won't "be as easy as running water down the Rio Grande," referring to the San Juan-Chama delivery system.
Berry said the city needs a vision and a plan for conservation and future water sources. He said his administration would have a scheme to not only help look for new water rights, especially large water transfers like the San Juan-Chama project, but to also make sure the city is prepared to responsibly pay for it.
"I think the city should have a leader who ... helps drive the vision and helps implement the plan," he said.
Desalination of brackish water, using the aquifer for water storage and the large water transfers are all options to add to the city's water supply, he said. Conservation, for the short term, is the city's best bet for more water, he said.
"Enhanced conservation is the cheapest supply of new water," Berry said.
But Berry also warned that some conservation techniques he supports, such as water reuse systems and low-flow toilets, do not save any water for the city's new water system, which requires the city return its used water into the Rio Grande downriver. He said only new water supplies will satisfy large growth in the area.
Romero said the Mayor's Office should take more interest in the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which has a voting position reserved on its board for the mayor.
Chávez does not attend water authority meetings but sends his chief administrative officer instead.
"We can't just stomp our feet and say, 'I don't like this authority,' " Romero said.
He said more oversight of the authority from a mayoral administration could help coordinate conservation, growth and acquisition efforts.
Romero supports acquiring new water rights, and said the focus needs to be on conservation. He said the city's water conservation record can be improved in its golf courses, parks and buildings.
"The program (to improve city conservation) needs to be accelerated," he said.
Chávez touts his administration's water record with what he calls the most important act as mayor — pushing for the San Juan-Chama diversion project to get off the ground after decades of unused, city-owned surface water in the Rio Grande flowed past the city every year.
Chávez was one catalyst for the construction of the new water system in his first term.
Chávez said he supports desalination, but only as a short term measure. He said reuse systems and new technology, such as toilet-to-tap systems, "if people can get over the 'ugh' factor," would also be welcome in the city.
Chávez is also proud of the steep decline in water use per person in Albuquerque since the 1980s, where personal usage has dropped per capita by about 90 gallons a day.
He said the real improvements can come from the state Legislature, which could force surrounding areas that use the aquifer to implement conservation programs.
Chávez, a former state legislator himself, said the city can do "virtually nothing" to force conservation on other communities. The state has that power, however, he said.
"We can't continue to be the only entity with a meaningful conservation system," Chávez said.