BPU to discuss WR water well project

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Open Forum > Discussion evenly split between supporters and detractors

By Arin McKenna

A plan from the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities to utilize the county’s 1,200 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water allotment by drilling one to three wells in White Rock has sparked sharp debate on the county’s Open Forum and during a Board of Public Utilities meeting in April.

BPU takes a closer look at the issue May 15.

According to DPU officials, the project ensures that the county’s San Juan-Chama water rights are protected, develops a more reliable and sustainable water supply, allows the existing groundwater aquifer to recover and provides for future growth.

Consultants CDM Smith rated this as the most economical and practical of five alternatives they evaluated. Project cost ranges between $9.4 million and $27 million, depending on the number of wells required.

Cost estimates for other feasible alternatives were between $36.5 million and $79.5 million. The $36.5 million alternative involved placing wells on San Ildefonso Pueblo lands, which poses significant right-of-way issues.

Based on the preliminary engineering report, Well Site 3--located in county open space south of Pajarito Acres–provides the greatest potential to yield the 1,200 acre-feet allotment. Fewer than a dozen homes are within 1,000 feet of the site, with the closest one approximately 450 feet away.

Well Site 2 is at the end of Kimberly Lane across the Canyon from and just north of the Red Dot Trailhead. Well Site 1 is located within Overlook Park adjacent to the existing BMX track. These will be drilled only if it is necessary to achieve maximum capacity.

Drilling the test well — a 24/7 operation —will have the greatest impact on nearby residents. Interrupting drilling can cause cave-ins and delays. DPU will request a noise ordinance waiver during that period. Residents will also have to live with lights, dust, diesel fumes and increased traffic.

If the wells are determined to be viable, final construction will comply with the county’s noise ordinance without any variance. Little to no intrusion on residents is anticipated once the wells are operational.

The proposal has sparked a not-in-my-backyard reaction from many residents. An equal number of respondents, including many White Rock residents, support the project.

“Your well idea could be a good one if done out of the sight and path of homeowners,” is a typical reaction, along with some variation of, “There are other areas, not near established homes, that can be used for the wells.”

Department of Public Utilities Senior Engineer Jack Richardson adamantly rebutted that assumption. “There are no other options on county property to make alternative 5 successful. It has to be close to the river and it has to be on county lands. There’s an assessment by the geo-hydrologists that you’ll actually get water when you drill there.”

Alternative 4 in CDM Smith’s evaluation puts wells in or near the Rio Grande, but entails building a water treatment facility and infrastructure to pump the water to White Rock at a cost of $51 million to $59 million.

Some suggested utilizing Department of Energy property. That would not only require DOE permission but the distance from existing utility facilities would increase costs by 50 percent.

Residents are also fearful of disturbances once the wells are operational. One resident wrote, “I am sickened by the thought that my family home will be ruined forever… how would you like it if those ugly, noisy wells were in your back yard???”

DPU is working to minimalize any impact. Pump houses will be hidden behind a perimeter wall with a stone-like façade that blends with the environment.

Sound mitigation is more complex.

“We don’t have any anticipated decibel levels yet because we don’t know what the capacity of the well is going to be. A lot depends on the capacity of the well, and then based on the capacity of the well, what type of equipment we use and what type of soundproofing we use to mitigate the noise from that particular equipment,” Richardson said. “The goal is you don’t hear it outside the compound it’s in.”

The county has enlisted CDM Smith to develop programs for sound mitigation both during drilling and after the well is running.

Although each facility will have only a one-acre footprint, some called the project “an inappropriate intrusion into our extremely valuable open space” and said it would subject the county’s open space to “industrial mayhem.”

There is a misconception that the land will be rezoned for industrial use.

“It is not being rezoned as industrial. It’s not an industrial facility. It’s a public utility,” Richardson said. “All we’re asking for is an exemption of these parcels from the open space designation. If anything it will be rezoned public lands. If the land is not utilized for a well it will revert back to open space.”

DPU will work with Parks and Recreation to relocate any trails disturbed by the new wells.

Some urged delay because the water is not needed immediately.

The DPU report notes that, “The longer the county waits to develop facilities to use and secure these San Juan-Chama Water rights the greater the chance that the county could lose these rights to other entities.”

Many of the project’s supporters, including White Rock residents, considered that the key issue.

One resident wrote, “We here on 9th street in the neighborhood of the new Municipal Building just endured a couple of years of construction which was at times more than annoying, but the resulting benefit to the community is well worth it in my view.… The long-term benefit to the community of these wells is immense. It assures us access to adequate water supply for probably forever - an assurance that few communities in New Mexico have. ”

Another commented, “Water will be the “gold” of the 21st century. It’s critical to the economy of Los Alamos that we develop this crucial resource for the good of current and future citizens of the County and the Lab.”

BPU will discuss the project at 5:30 p.m., May 15 in the DPU Conference Room at 170 Central Park Square. Open Forum can be accessed at losalamosnm.us.