Is the Dirt City’s H20 plan working?
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority says its Drinking Water Project was launched to relieve an overtaxed aquifer. But the utility is falling behind in its objectives—and it's only now admitting why.
The project was intended to take pressure off the aquifer by using more surface water from the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project, which brings water from the Colorado River basin here to be added to the Rio Grande. This required $400 million in infrastructure that was financed by seven rate increases.
Following the opening of a $160 million surface water treatment plant, the utility’s board passed two resolutions, one for 2010 and a second for 2011, setting progressively higher objectives for the percentage of surface water to be used. In fiscal year 2010, the objective was 50 percent. In fiscal year 2011, the objective was 75 percent.
Since the beginning, the plant has underperformed. According to an Oct. 10 email from spokesperson David Morris, in 2010 the plant produced only 38 percent of the utility's supply, and in 2011 it produced only 47 percent. That means the aquifer has had to provide more than was projected: 12 percent in 2010 and 28 percent in 2011.
The board didn't set an objective for 2012, but it's not faring much better. As of Oct. 10, it has only produced about 39 percent of the utility's water over the calendar year, Morris says. One reason is that in September and October, the utility stopped diverting surface water completely because of forest fire ash and low flow in the river. But Morris says the plant began providing surface water again on Nov. 5, so its contribution may rise by the end of the year.
Michael Jensen, who’s been lobbying for stricter conservation measures, says news of the shortfalls raises serious questions. (Jensen is the communications director for Amigos Bravos, the river advocacy group that is party to a suit against the Drinking Water Project. He says, however, that his championing of conservation is independent of the group.)
"Presumably, when they built the plant, it was designed to help recharge the aquifer,” he says. “It doesn't appear to me that it's going to be able to do that if they're not getting close to their goals.”
And there's a bigger question, he adds. "Why aren't they saying these things—to the board, in public—so that there can be a discussion about them, and so there can be transparency and accountability?"
The utility’s Chief Operating Officer John Stomp says he has kept the utility’s board informed. "I'm not sure that we haven't necessarily told the board those things. Every quarter, we tell them where we are on our goals and objectives.”
When asked at their Oct. 19 meeting whether they'd been told about the plant's underperformance, board members and County Commissioners Art De La Cruz and Maggie Hart Stebbins gave negative replies.
"I don't recall, but we should have been," said De La Cruz, the board's chairman.
Stebbins was more emphatic.
"No, that's not something I was aware of. ... That information is not being carried to the board.”
Stomp attributes problems to startup difficulties. He says, in retrospect, it probably was a mistake to set such optimistic goals in the first few years.
"We've had issues with the intake structure, with sand, sediment and sticks. We've had issues with chemical deliveries. We've had issues with plant operations and staffing.” Stomp says he initially thought only one person would be needed per shift because the system was automated. But it turned out that two were necessary. So the utility had to hire six more people and train them, which took time. “It's just been a learning experience more than anything," he says.
The major cause of the autumn shutdowns was low flow in the Rio Grande, he says, and the arcane mathematics involved in parceling out the river to its consumers. Under a permit from the State Engineer's Office the utility can only divert surface water if there's a certain flow rate in the river. But measuring that flow was difficult while the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was still diverting for irrigation. So the utility decided to stop using surface water until after irrigation season ended, about Oct. 31.
For Jensen, the low-flow issue isn’t new.
"I've been saying for some time—and so have other people—that there was the potential for the Drinking Water Project to be unable to meet any reasonable goals the Water Utility Authority might set because there wouldn't be enough flow in the river," he says.
Stomp dismisses the idea that there won't be enough for the Drinking Water Project. For one thing, low flow is seasonal and periodic, he says. For another, the utility has enough water in its Abiquiú and Heron reservoirs to last six years, he adds, even without a drop of rain.
But he’s sensitive to the allegation that he hasn't been forthcoming enough.
"I didn't think of it that way, and I would be glad to make a report to the board,” he says. “We don't really have anything to hide. I'd be glad to meet with people or come up with an objective or somehow describe the situation.” In November or December, he’ll make a presentation, he adds. “And I will also say that we'll make periodic updates and reports to the board as we go along.”