Facts about water in Los Alamos

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By Pete Sheehey

Third of a series

One of the major issues in this town is water: do we have enough to keep this a green community, at an affordable cost? Since I was elected to County Council two years ago, I have been gathering facts about water in Los Alamos.
Present and Future Water Use
The average per capita water use in Los Alamos between 2003 and 2012 was about 151 gpcd (gallons per capita per day; data source: Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities). This includes residential, educational, municipal, and commercial use and losses, but does not include Los Alamos National Laboratory operations.
Los Alamos’ average of 151 gpcd is in the range reported for neighboring communities. Albuquerque and Rio Rancho brought their water use down from more than 200 gpcd to 150 or less in the last 15 to 20 years, by enacting strict water use requirements on new building, and offering generous incentives to customers to reduce their water use (e.g., rebates toward the cost of high-efficiency washing machines, low-flow toilets, gray-water use systems and xeriscaping). Santa Fe now has water use around 100 gpcd, due to incentives, but also due to peak season water rates from 65 percent to more than 200 percent higher than the recently enacted Los Alamos tiered water rates.
LANL water use has come down from a high of 1391 ac-ft/yr in 1999, to around 1,100 ac-ft/yr this year, and is projected to drop to near 1,000 ac-ft/yr by 2017 as the water-saving SERF facility is more utilized. Between FY17 and FY20, increased computing (requiring cooling water) could drive water use back up by about 400 ac-ft/yr, again near 1400 ac-ft/yr (this data was provided by LANL and can be seen in the county website online agenda packet for the July 8, 2014 County Council meeting, item 5978-14 attachment B, LA-UR-13-29071). This LANL estimate of water use does not include the possible 400 to 1190 ac-ft/yr that would be pumped for Cr+6 abatement. I hope, and will strongly advocate, that the water pumped for Cr+6 abatement, once treated, will then be re-used for part of the Lab’s yearly needs.
The 2006 Long-Range Water Supply Plan for L.A. County makes future water need projections based upon an assumed population of 25,000 by 2020. The assumptions were that planned DOE land transfers to the county would be fully built-out, populated, and 2500 additional jobs created. This would require more water than Los Alamos owns, even adding full use of the 1200 ac-ft/yr San Juan-Chama water to our present 5,541.3 ac-ft/yr. Residential water conservation of 12 percent (a quite achievable goal) could bring use down to the total 6741.3 ac-ft/yr that we do own.
I believe an increase in population of about 2000, to a total of 20,000, is possible. If properly managed, such an increase could make this town a more economically viable and pleasant place to live. About 7,000 people commute to jobs here from other counties. If 10 to 15 percent of these commuters relocated here with their families that would bring us to 20,000. I don’t believe a population higher than 20,000 here is likely, without difficult-to-foresee changes like major job growth at the lab or other employers. In the next update to the town’s long-range water plan, a range of more realistic population projections will be evaluated.
How much water would a 20,000 population Los Alamos need? Start with the 4,200 ac-ft/yr that we’re presently using, add 300 ac-ft/yr for lab expanded computing, maybe another 100 ac-ft/yr for snowmaking at the Ski Hill, and add 335 ac-ft/yr for the 2,000 new residents at 150 gpcd, and you get 4935 ac-ft/yr, still less than consumed in the 1970s and 1980s. This is 600 ac-ft/yr less than our 5,541.3 ac-ft/yr water rights, giving us a good margin to allow for severe drought effects on recharge, or for contamination cleanup pumping (e.g. Cr+6) that cannot be re-used or re-injected. While my 150 gpcd estimate for additional population includes normal commercial and civic uses, new businesses that make significant use of water might also employ some of this 600 ac-ft/yr.