Water in the mid Rio Urban and Rural

by Edna Loehman

Photo: Scott Elkins / unsplash

Many of us in the mid Rio Grande area take water for granted when we open the faucet or flush the toilet. We may not know anything about the processes for supplying potable water or its disposal after use. We probably notice that our water bills also contain a bill for wastewater disposal, and we may realize that our water disposal is related to our water use.  But we may know very little about the water management system. 

In the larger metro area, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) manages drinking water and wastewater disposal. The Albuquerque Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for which census data is regularly collected includes Albuquerque as well as towns such as Estancia, Moriarty, Edgewood, Cedar Crest, and surrounding areas.  Not all of the MSA is served by ABCWUA, though.  ABCWUA draws on the Middle Rio Grande Basin for groundwater, while the Estancia Basin is used by many non-urban water users in the area.

Households in non-urban settings have more direct involvement in their own water supply and disposal.  Non-urban households – outside of towns with municipal water supplies – get their water from groundwater wells and dispose of their wastewater through onsite (septic) treatment systems.

Metropolitan and rural areas are linked by economic and social forces; residents of non-urban areas often work and shop in the towns of metro areas. Similarly, the water situations in metro and non-urban areas are linked.  Populations employed in town areas are drawn to less expensive housing in rural areas, thus increasing household groundwater use in rural areas.  Consequently, groundwater in non-urban areas is being stressed, leading to drying out of wells.  An extensive study of groundwater wells across the West by Perrone and Jasechko found that in the Estancia Basin in Torrance County south of Moriarty, a high proportion of wells have dried out.

To provide for the necessity of water for household uses in non-urban areas, bulk water sales have become an expanding private enterprise  in which private truck owners haul tanks of water to homes. This industry is completely unregulated in terms of water quality and price.  Supplying such bulk sales is straining municipal water supply for the town of Moriarty, NM, which has the only bulk-water distribution site in the East Mountain area. As groundwater problems in the Estancia Basin persist, it can be anticipated that displaced rural populations may move into the ABQ metro service region, thus increasing water demand for ABCWUA.

Hence the allusion to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, in this case, the metro and non-urban areas: what happens in each jurisdiction affects the other! Although both water management systems are now focusing on reuse and conservation in order to conserve groundwater supplies, the two approaches to water systems are vastly different. The metropolitan area has far more access to financial sources through the Water Authority and must answer to water quality and treatment standards set by the U.S. EPA. In contrast, non-urban systems must rely on voluntary compliance constrained by household financial situations and the limited oversight and education resources of New Mexico state agencies. See the other two articles this month, “Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Use Authority” and “The Non-Urban Water Situation in Our Region”  for more details and discussion.

In both city and country, the household is key to reducing groundwater withdrawal through behavioral changes and adopting water reuse consistent with water quality. Climate change affecting surface supplies will make such changes ever more necessary.

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority

by Edna Loehman, with information from David Morris, Public Affairs Manager, ABCWUA

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) manages water for Albuquerque and the surrounding Bernalillo County area. It provides water to about 650,000 municipal customers; total per capita daily usage including commercial and industrial applications is about 125 gallon per day. Until 2008, the drinking water supply was solely from the aquifer beneath Albuquerque. Water table levels were dropping – pumping levels were twice as high as natural replenishment and the aquifer was smaller than originally believed. In response, the Water Authority (created by the Legislature from the City of Albuquerque’s Public Works Department to serve both Albuquerque and Bernalillo County) moved to add surface water to the community’s supply portfolio.

The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project, completed by the Water Authority in 2008, tapped into water from the federal San Juan-Chama Project. which started to bring an annual allotment of 110,000 acre-feet of surface water into New Mexico from the Colorado Basin in the early 1970s. This immense project delivers water through a tunnel and pipes into the Chama River. The Water Authority receives about half of the supply and the rest goes to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the City/County of Santa Fe. Consequently, our water supply is now about 70% surface water and 30% groundwater. (In drought years, though, this proportion may shift to more groundwater.) Use of San Juan-Chama water has resulted in significant improvement of groundwater levels; in some areas the levels have risen by 50 feet or more. Another advantage of surface water use is that it does not have to be treated for arsenic, which is a problem when using groundwater. Total cost of the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water project, including a state-of-art surface water treatment plant, was $500 million.

Annual potable water production is about 34.2 billion gallons; of this, the total wastewater discharge to the Rio Grande is about 17.5 billion gallons. Thus, about half the potable water supply is consumptive use for irrigation of gardens and landscaping. To carry wastewater from homes and businesses, the Water Authority maintains a system of about 2,400 miles of sewer line from homes to the Southside Water Reclamation Plant where treated water then is released into the Rio Grande. Wastewater treatment must meet standards for water quality set by the EPA. The treatment plant is rated for a maximum capacity of 76 million gallons per day (mgd) and currently treats 50–60 mgd.  The outflow of the plant has been called “the largest tributary in New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande”!

Outfall to the Rio Grande from the wastewater treatment plant. Photo: David Morris

The Southside Water Reclamation Plant is located adjacent to the Rio Grande in the South Valley, about a mile south of Rio Bravo Boulevard. Raw sewage enters the plant and is subjected to a multi-step treatment process to remove solids and contaminants. The final step in the process is disinfection using ultraviolent light. The clean water is then returned to the environment via the outfall to the Rio Grande. Leftover sludge from the treatment process is transported to our Soil Amendment Facility for conversion to high-quality compost, which is available for sale to the public.

Because of the strains of increasing population growth and climate change, the Water Authority has been making contingency plans to manage groundwater sustainably. Water 2120: Securing our Water Future is a very large report that details how this can be accomplished. Three key aspects are conservation programs, aquifer recharge, and the reuse of wastewater.

Conservation programs provide incentives to homeowners to remove lawns and install xeriscape planting. Toilet and shower rebates are no longer necessary because most of these have already been replaced by low flow appliances. The result is that per capita use was cut in half from 1995 to 2015.

The possibility of aquifer recharge is being demonstrated at Bear Canyon Arroyo under a State Engineer permit; it applies unused surface water in the arroyo in the winter months. It is the first operating recharge project in New Mexico and serves as a groundbreaking example. The project’s success is due to its geology; the infiltration site is permeable because it overlies the site of the Rio Grande before the river shifted to the west.

Reuse of wastewater is a major emphasis for reducing water use. Klarissa Pena, Albuquerque City Councilor and former Chair of the Water Authority’s Governing Board, has stated that water reused is water saved. “Current and planned reuse projects are for landscapes, parks, golf courses, and open spaces. Using non-potable recycled water in places like this allows us to conserve drinking water for its most important purpose: drinking.”

I asked David Morris, Public Relations Manager for ABCWUA, what in his opinion citizens in our area should be aware of and have support for in terms of managing our water supply: “Our hope is that local residents will continue to realize and act on the need for water conservation, especially when it comes to outdoor irrigation. Try to limit watering to three days a week in the summertime; follow time-of-day watering rules (no sprinkler irrigation between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. from April 1-Oct. 31); maintain sprinkler systems and check regularly for leaks and malfunctions; and wherever possible replace decorative turf with desert-friendly xeriscaping. We also appreciate residents’ support for investment in infrastructure intended to ensure our future water supply, such as satellite treatment plants and transmission pipelines for water reuse.”

Overall, ABCWUA has been working towards a sustainable potable water supply for the Albuquerque metro area: per capita water use was halved between 1995 and 2015, and groundwater pumping has had a two-thirds reduction in that time period. The water utility is undertaking groundbreaking efforts in water reuse and groundwater recharge.


Water, mid Rio – Rural

by Edna Loehman, with information from Michael Broussard, Environmental Health Bureau Liquid Waste Specialist, New Mexico Environment Department

About 13% of the population of New Mexico receives water from a private well, and the quality of such private well water is unregulated. And yet, there are known local water quality problems. For example, arsenic – a known carcinogen – is a known contaminant of New Mexico’s drinking water. Disposal of wastewater creates further water quality problems. As a 2005 report on groundwater quality in Corrales  by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) puts it: “Septic tank effluents have contaminated more water supply wells, and more acre-feet of groundwater, than all other sources in the state combined.” That report documented the adverse impact of septic tank effluents on groundwater quality around the Village of Corrales.

Photo: Mark Hassling / unsplash

Water use and management have overlapping jurisdictions in non-urban areas. This creates complexities in developing new homes, businesses, and industries in those areas. The State Engineer has jurisdiction over issuing private well permits. A new well permit is only allowed if there is no detrimental impact on existing well users. The NMED is responsible for overseeing water infrastructure systems and water quality issues throughout the state. Within NMED, the Onsite Wastewater Bureau ensures that septic systems are adequately installed and maintained in a manner protective of public health and the environment. As a division of the Wastewater Bureau, Environmental Health Bureau (EHB) regulates, among other responsibilities, onsite (septic) wastewater systems. The EHB emphasizes education of homeowners and buyers to make sure they know the proper procedures for onsite systems. Any houses built or sold with an existing septic system must be inspected prior to transfer to ensure that the system is functioning properly.

Onsite water reuse is a new effort of the EHB, with the aim of reducing the pumping of groundwater. They must rely on voluntary conservation approach, but are working on simplifying permit applications for qualified contractors who install onsite wastewater treatment. The contractors also educate homeowners about reusing their household gray water. Gray water means untreated household wastewater that has not come in contact with toilet waste, including wastewater from bathtubs, showers, washbasins, and washing clothes, but not from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, or washing diapers. A 2003 state law allows household discharge of gray water up to 250 gallons per day without a permit for household gardening and landscaping.

Besides state agency efforts, regional systems are emerging. A 2020 ordinance in Bernalillo County mandates regular inspections of old septic systems and requires them to be replaced by municipal sewer connection if that is available. Bernalillo County also has a water conservation program for non-ABCWUA users. Through its Public Works department, incentive programs for water conservation promote household adoption of smart water monitors, smart irrigation controllers, high-efficiency toilet retrofits, rainwater harvesting, high-efficiency washing machines, and laundry-to-landscape gray water. For example, easy-to-install Laundry-to-Landscape Gray Water kits are provided free to applying households; these kits are worth hundreds of dollars, and the application fee for a wastewater variance is waived for participants in the program.

A regional approach to water management is exemplified by the EMWT Regional Water Association. It was formed in 2014 to implement a regional water distribution system to protect groundwater resources in the Estancia Valley. Its foundation is a Joint Powers Agreement among the town of Estancia, city of Moriarty, village of Willard, and Torrance County for the purpose of constructing a regional water supply system. It aims to ultimately supply over 50,000 users with safe water through bulk water provision and piping as resources become available.

As seen in this article, New Mexico’s state and county agencies outside of urban areas are striving to maintain water quality and reduce groundwater use. But because of (1) far more limited resources, (2) overlapping town, county, state agencies, and (3) reliance on voluntary measures, water management in rural areas is of a lesser scope than in the urban area served by ABCWUA. Regional water management through Joint Power Agreements is emerging as a potentially powerful new tool for less centralized management areas.