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Dry and high: More conservation needed

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By Katy Korkos

The condition of the county’s water supply was the subject of a briefing by Department of Public Utilities Manager Robert Monday when council met Tuesday evening. ”We live in a high desert environment,” Monday said. “We’re mining this aquifer. We’re taking more out than we’re putting back.” The county currently has water rights for 5,541 acre-feet of water per year, and the San Juan Chama project will bring an additional 1,200 acre-feet of rights to the county. Monday described several issues for councilors to consider with San Juan-Chama water, the first being that it will be expensive to get that water up to Los Alamos. The second concern is that the county is “junior” in its rights to that water, and in the case of a lawsuit, more senior rights-holders would have the first priority to that water. “San Juan-Chama has conservation requirements,” Monday said.The county must have a conservation plan in place in order to use that water, and a 12-percent reduction in domestic use is part of that plan. Although the utilities department had envisioned an inclining block water rate as an important component to water conservation, and the public had expressed their support of the inclining rate in a survey, the rate was not approved by council. “Some residents were passionate in their opposition to inclining block water rates,” Monday said.Monday told council that the county’s water rights, though not fully used at this time, would be used up by the year 2050, if even a low-growth projection were used.He said that population growth had been essentially flat in the county, “but sooner or later people are going to discover what a great place we have here,” and the town will grow.Monday showed councilors a chart, generated from data by the office of the state engineer, that describes water usage throughout the state, showing that 10 percent of water in New Mexico is lost to evaporation, 5 percent is used for livestock, commercial, industrial mining, and power uses, 76 percent is used for agricultural irrigation, and 9 percent is used for public and domestic uses. Monday explained that, as a county, we have very little power to affect any of the other uses, and it’s only the 9-percent figure that could be changed by residents’ conservation. When water use in Los Alamos is charted, the chart shows use remaining flat “because the lab has reduced its usage,” Monday said. He explained that household use spikes in the summer months in the county, with three times more water used in the summer as in the winter. He also compared the county’s summer water use with that of Santa Fe, which is far lower, explaining that the lower use in Santa Fe is due to a much higher water rate imposed there. “We have to accept the fact that we live in high desert mountains and utilize as much natural landscape as possible,” Monday said.“Conservation is the cheapest water that money can buy,” Monday said.Councilor Mike Wheeler asked whether progress had been made on the Los Alamos County Reservoir, and Monday said that the project was currently stalled while waiting for an environmental impact statement. Councilor Nona Bowman asked whether there had been any studies about underground storage of water to reduce evaporation, and was told that it was not practical currently.All seven councilors attended Tuesday’s session, and were unanimous in their decisions in each case brought before them. Council authorized an agreement with the Regional Development Corporation for the development of a regional economic development strategic plan and implementation of selected projects as envisioned in the plan.The council conducted two closed sessions on Tuesday, regarding the hiring of a county attorney to replace Peter Dwyer, who left in July. Council Chair West announced that no action was taken at the closed sessions. A third closed session, to discuss the purchase, acquisition or disposal of real property involving the Boyer Company, had been announced for the time directly following the regular council meeting, but that session was continued to 10 a.m. Thursday in the meeting room of 133 Central Park Square.The next regular meeting of the council will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 27, in chambers in the Community Building at 475 20th St.