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County to hold meeting on water supply plan Tuesday

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By Arin McKenna

When the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities proposed drilling a well in White Rock in 2013 in order to utilize the county’s 1,200 acre-feet San Juan-Chama water allotment, the community went into an uproar.
Residents near the three proposed well sites feared adverse impacts during construction and on their property values afterwards. Open space proponents argued against placing the well on public land near the canyon rim and popular hiking trails.
In June of 2013, the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to delay digging a test well while they studied the issues. A year later, the board voted to postpone any action until after the 10-year update of the county’s Long-Range Water Supply Plan in 2016.
Contractor Daniel B. Stephens & Associates, Inc. has just completed a draft of that updated plan. The good news for well opponents is that based on the consultant’s findings, there is no immediate need to secure the San Juan-Chama allotment. But Department of Public Utilities Manager Tim Glasco warns that the situation could change in the future.
The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer requires every water supplier to develop a 40-year Long-Range Water Supply Plan.
“Fundamentally, the purpose is to demonstrate that a water supplier, a municipality, has enough water to serve its customers and commitments for the 40 years,” said DPU Deputy Utility Manager of Engineering James Alarid. “And they also want to check that you’re not sitting on a whole lot of unused water rights as well. So they use this to keep score of the water rights within the state.
“At the end of the day, it’s a regulatory document, but it is our big planning tool to help us see where our needs are going to be, and we can plan and budget and be ready to react.”
A key element for that planning is projected growth and future water needs. Projections for both the 2006 plan and this year’s revision are based on data provided by the Los Alamos Community Development Department and the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER). Those projections have changed dramatically in 10 years.
According to Glasco, the 2006 projection was for “fairly significant growth,” with the high end range anticipating 30,000 residents and a significant increase in water use.
“We were going to go past our water right that we had and it was going to require the development of the San Juan water resource just to be able to meet our needs,” Glasco said. “And that was with conservation efforts to hold down the large amount of water use growth.”
Then the 2008 recession hit, and population projections changed dramatically. Water usage also decreased as DPU’s conservation education efforts paid off and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) worked to meet Department of Energy directives for water conservation. That trend is expected to continue.
“The low (projection) is actually showing very level growth in population, and the laboratory – at least in the early years of the 40-year horizon – is going to continue declining in their use,” Alarid said. “And then the high projections are showing we’re going to grow but we’re not going to exceed our water right. We’re staying comfortably.”
Based on those trends, DPU does not project a need to develop the San Juan-Chama allocation in the immediate future, but both Alarid and Glasco stressed that various factors could change that projection.
Those factors could include regulatory changes or challenges to the county’s right to the San Juan-Chama allocation if it remains undeveloped. That is not an immediate threat.
“Right now, the state engineer considers that we’re putting our San Juan Chama water to beneficial use by reselling it to the Bureau of Reclamation, and they in turn discharge the water in support of the silvery minnow,” Alarid said.
A threat assessment is a requisite part of the plan, and several potential threats could necessitate developing new water sources.
Glasco gave some examples, such as one well being monitored for any signs of tritium, which leaked into the groundwater from the old TA-2 nuclear reactor, or diesel from a spill on the cliff above the well a few years ago.
“So we have a very close eye on that well. We test it for diesel-range organics quarterly, and so far it’s clean,” Glasco said. “And we watch that well very carefully to see what the tritium numbers are. So far, we haven’t seen anything but background, so that’s good news.”
Other examples include a well in Pajarito Canyon that could have impacts from the old TA-18 facility or the TA-54 waste dump. LANL is also monitoring a chromium plume slowly moving toward other county wells.
Glasco wanted to assure residents that their water is safe.
“Everybody worries about the water up here, but what they don’t realize is the really, really intensive program of water testing and vigilance that we have here, just for that reason,” Glasco said.
The county also has three wells that have exceeded their 40-year lifespan and are expected to fall out of production before too long. DPU is currently in the permitting process for one new well replacement that it hopes to construct in 2017.
With so many potential threats, the plan recommends that DPU be prepared.
“One of the recommendations in the plan is that we need to be ready to react to loss of water supply wells, and also, in the not too distant future – in the near term – maybe consider doing the environmental impact statement for the San Juan Chama, just to start to take care of the administrative processes should we have to react quickly, primarily due to the threat of groundwater contamination and/or mechanical failure,” Alarid said.
Glasco stressed the importance of not losing the San Juan-Chama water rights. He noted that just prior to the completion of the San Juan-Chama contract in 1978, the county was using approximately 98 percent of its allotted water rights and expected to exceed those at any time.
Although that percentage has dropped to approximately 70 percent the county’s current allotment, Glasco warned that several factors could necessitate developing the San Juan-Chama allotment in the future.
“It’s a very valuable contract to have. It’s almost the only source of new water rights in New Mexico, because all the other basins are pretty much uniformly over allocated. So you have to go retire water rights for somebody else to get new water rights,” Glasco said.
“I would say, at this point, it’s not immediately needed, but there may very well come a day when it’s critical to this county to utilize that…It looks good right now, but it would be very, very foolish to throw that away, because there isn’t anything else out there. And once we got rid of it we’d never get it back.”
Glasco also warned that the study findings on the best way to develop that resource are unlikely to change.  
“We did a pretty exhaustive search of alternatives of how to use that San Juan-Chama water, and what was the most cost effective and the safest and the best all around turned out to be the wells,” Glasco said.
DPU is holding a public meeting to gather input on the Long-Range Water Supply Plan  at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers. Both Glasco and Alarid urged residents to participate.
“We really want to solicit people to come out and share their ideas and be part of it,” Alarid said.
BPU will also review the plan at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 16 in council chambers and it comes before council on Nov. 29.
The contractor and DPU staff will incorporate appropriate adjustments to the revised plan and return to council for adoption in January 2017.
Go to losalamosnm.us/utilities to review the draft plan. Those unable to attend one of the public meetings can send comments to james.alarid@lacnm.us.