AP NEWS

New Mexico city celebrates $450M drinking water project

December 11, 2018
FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2018, file photo, silt and other debris flow down the Rio Grande following a night of rain in Albuquerque, N.M. A $450 million drinking water project that was first conceived decades ago is paying off as New Mexico's largest metro area has slashed its reliance on groundwater by almost 70 percent despite the arid state's struggles with drought. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A $450 million drinking water project that was first conceived decades ago is paying off as New Mexico’s largest metro area has slashed its reliance on groundwater by almost 70 percent despite the arid state’s struggles with drought.

Utility officials are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the San Juan-Chama Project. It has resulted in billions of gallons of purified water flowing through Albuquerque’s taps.

Once thought of as a boondoggle, the project has helped to spur a significant recovery of the aquifer beneath the city and has boosted supplies for other communities and farmers along the Rio Grande.

Officials say the project has provided a much needed hedge against the demands of a growing population and predictions of drier times.

Here are some things to know about the project:

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THE HISTORY

New Mexico wasn’t always in the crosshairs of drought and there was even a time when people in the state’s largest metropolis had no worries about water, believing they were living atop a vast underground reservoir that could meet the needs of future generations.

It was a hard sell for planners to convince the populous that they needed to invest in what would become the largest infrastructure project of its kind in New Mexico’s history.

“If you think about the 1960s when everyone thought we were sitting on Lake Superior and we’re signing a contract for San Juan-Chama, people were mad,” said John Stomp, chief operating officer of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Critics called it a boondoggle and suggested the money was being wasted.

Thirty years later, federal scientists broke the news that Albuquerque’s aquifer was only half as large as originally thought and it was being replenished only half as fast as it was being pumped.

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HOW IT WORKS

The San Juan-Chama Project brings water from the Colorado River Basin into the Rio Grande Basin via a system of diversion dams, tunnels, channels and other infrastructure.

The water flows from the headwaters in southern Colorado through the San Juan River. At a certain point, it’s diverted through the Continental Divide using tunnels and dumps into the Chama River, which ultimately flows into the Rio Grande. Water can be stored in reservoirs along the way.

Albuquerque’s piece of the puzzle includes a diversion dam along the Rio Grande at the northern edge of the city. There, water is pulled from the river and pumped through a network of pipelines to a $160 million treatment plant that processes the water for distribution to homes and businesses.

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BY THE NUMBERS

Nearly 137 billion gallons of river water have been purified and delivered by the system.

Utility officials say now that 60 to 70 percent of the city’s water comes from the river, so there’s less stress on the aquifer. In some areas, groundwater levels have risen by 50 feet or more, according to figures released by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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FUTURE DEMANDS

Stomp pointed to this year’s drought, when record-low flows were reported along stretches of the Rio Grande. The utility worked with the federal government and other agencies to pool their resources to keep the river flowing through Albuquerque.

The idea is to manage the groundwater so it’s not being overused and can provide a supplemental supply in times of drought or peak use, he said.

As part of a 100-year plan, the utility looked at the state of the climate and predictions from federal scientists who monitor the Colorado River. They warn that there could be a 30 percent reduction in the water supply 60 years from now.

Like Las Vegas, Nevada, Albuquerque wants to take advantage of its aquifer to store excess water for future use but there’s still more money that needs to be invested to build the required infrastructure.

Like the planners who pushed for the San Juan-Chama Project decades ago, Stomp sees this as the future.

“We need to keep managing our supplies and growing our understanding,” he said. “There’s still a lot of tools out there and we need to keep going.”