Albuquerque's water supply is about to change
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 18, 2008
Turn on a faucet. Any faucet. If the faucet you've chosen is in Albuquerque, the water that surges out of your hose, into your kitchen sink, onto your head or down your toilet is older than Christianity. Older than the Roman Empire. At least as old as the end of the last Ice Age. This 10,000-year-old water is pumped from beneath your feet and forced to the earth's surface from a fractured network of vessels that make up the city's aquifer.
Come December, what pours out of that faucet will come from a river instead.
Albuquerque's aquifer is shrinking. The size of our population, coupled with bad conservation practices, lowered the water table not only under our city, but throughout the entire Middle Rio Grande Valley. Left alone, water quality could become an issue within 25 years. Within 35 years, pockets of land over the aquifer could begin to sink. Realizing this potentially catastrophic effect, back in 1997 the City of Albuquerque came up with a plan.
The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project [Re: Feature, "Parched?" May 31-June 6, 2007] aims to lessen our drainage on the aquifer by using water from Colorado. Water is first diverted from the San Juan River above the Colorado-New Mexico border to the Rio Chama, making it San Juan-Chama water that is then channeled to the Rio Grande. The journey is nearly 200 miles long.
The city bought rights to the river water in 1963 in an effort to offset groundwater pumping, hoping the extra drops would seep into the aquifer. But the river-aquifer connection is much weaker than previously thought, and groundwater reserves aren't replenishing fast enough. So instead of trying to balance the aquifer with the Rio Grande, the city's going to start drinking river water instead. It's a move that's aroused praise and criticism, and after 11 years of planning and building, the results are about to show up in your glass.
Flipping the Switch
The transition to a new drinking water system is anything but seamless. Concerns condensed in an appeal filed against the Drinking Water Project by a group of citizens who have fought against approval of the permit for the project since 2001.
Steve Harris is one of those citizens. The original organizer of the group and a co-founder of Rio Grande Restoration, Harris says there are a number of issues with the proposed system. Senior water rights (entities that used water from the Rio Grande before 1907—mainly tribes and acequias) could be compromised, he says. The 17-mile stretch between where water will be taken out and put back in the river could also suffer, he adds.
But John Stomp, head of the Drinking Water Project, says the Water Utility Authority proceeded cautiously. "We're only allowed to use and divert San Juan-Chama water, which is imported Colorado river water," he says. "So it has nothing to do with the native water system. So I think that concern is completely unfounded."
In regard to the 17-mile stretch, he says the state engineer ruled diversion must stop during low-flow periods, and because of that condition, Stomp thinks the project will have "little to no impact to this stretch of the river."
The Court of Appeals held a hearing on July 1 over the group's request to deny the permit, and the ruling has yet to be released. If the group is successful, Stomp says, the Water Utility Authority will take the matter to the New Mexico Supreme Court. Otherwise, the project will move forward as planned.
Nuts and Bolts
The switch from groundwater to river water isn't as simple as dipping a cup in the Rio Grande. The process begins with mixing the San Juan-Chama water with an equal amount of water from our local river.
Albuquerque holds rights to as much as 48,200 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water a year. One acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to fill one acre of land with one foot of water; it comes out to 325,851 gallons (imagine that many milk jugs) per acre-foot. That hybrid river water is then sent through a treatment plant and into the city's drinking water system where it is mixed with any groundwater that's still needed to meet demand.
Rio Grande water is insurance that every last drop of San Juan-Chama water is used. It makes up for leaks and evaporation. And at the end of the line, the exact amount of water that was taken out of the Rio Grande is treated and returned to the river.
The distinctions between what water is used and what goes back to the river get muddy. After all, there's no way to tell one water molecule apart from another once they flush together. But because the Albuquerque-Bernalillo Water Utility Authority is legally obligated to keep track of its San Juan-Chama water and return the same amount of water to the Rio Grande as was taken, the process is thought of in those terms.
The goal of the project is to alleviate stress on the aquifer and allow it to replenish itself. With conservation, the city is depleting aquifer levels by two-and-a-half feet a year (the city uses an average of 165 gallons of water per person per day, totaling about 98,000 acre-feet in 2007—that's more than 31.9 billion milk jugs' worth).
The Drinking Water Project won't stop all use of aquifer water. When it first goes online in December, only 25 percent of the city's water will come from the river, and within two years it will increase to meet about half the city's demand. Still, the Water Utility Authority estimates after having the project in place for 40 years, the aquifer's levels will rise 25 feet.
All of the infrastructure needed for the project is built, and now the last stage of preparation for the project—testing the water treatment plant—is underway. The new system was supposed to be online in July, but because of delays in testing and in receiving equipment, it was pushed back. Some think even more testing is required on the river.
What's in Your Glass?
Agua es Vida Action Team is worried about contaminants in the river that could end up in Albuquerque’s water supply. Its members have worked with the Water Utility Authority for two years on water quality issues. Lesley Weinstock, one member of Agua es Vida, says the organization is asking for more careful and frequent monitoring of the river.
Weinstock says pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, perchlorate (an ingredient used in rocket fuel found to disrupt thyroid function), radionuclides and endocrine disruptors such as Bisphenol A have all been found in the Rio Grande. Agua es Vida wants to know that those and a long list of other chemicals will be effectively filtered out when the river becomes a drinking water source. (The EPA sets standards for about 90 of these contaminants in all potable water, including tap and bottled drinking water).
Stomp says the Water Utility Authority tested the river extensively and that it's "pretty clean." He argues the river is in some ways cleaner than the aquifer. "There's less arsenic, and there's less salt. There's less radioactive particles in the river than there is in the groundwater," he says. "So I think in a lot of respects, it's even better than the groundwater."
Stomp recognizes the river may not stay "pretty clean" forever, and so the Water Utility Authority is taking measures to meet future challenges. "We've built a very robust treatment system to try to accommodate what we think might be in the river 20 years from now," he says, adding that the treatment process could be expanded. He also says the system is the best a city can have for taking out pharmaceuticals and antibiotics.
Even so, one of Agua es Vida's contentions is that the testing procedures in New Mexico aren't sensitive enough. The state can only test most contaminants at the parts-per-billion level, but Agua es Vida would like to see it tested at parts per trillion. The organization recommended the Water Utility Authority ask the New Mexico Environment Department to conduct another study on the Rio Grande using parts-per-trillion technology.
"What is the significance of these really low levels of this stuff in the river? We don't know the answer to that," says Janice Evans, a physician and member of Agua es Vida. But Evans says the point is to find out what's in the river "so that we can at least be aware of what’s in it, and as research emerges, that we can then be more informed to know whether we need to be more careful about getting things out of the river."
In response to whether contaminants are dangerous at such low levels, Evans says on their own, they might not be, but many contaminants at low levels could interact with each other, creating a problem.
Stomp says he's not sure the technology even exists to test for all contaminants at the parts-per-trillion level but is adamant that the river is well-tested. "We're going to continue to monitor the river from Albuquerque all the way up to [Lake] Heron every year and watch things that are going on with Los Alamos," he says. "We're concerned about quality water in the river, too, obviously," he adds. "We're serving it to our citizens, which include my family and everybody else."