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Utilities Dept. wraps up '07

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By Katy Korkos

Los Alamos County’s Department of Public Utilities has wrapped up the year with a long list of accomplishments and an equally long list of goals for the months to come.In an interview Wednesday, public information officer Julie Williams-Hill detailed the department’s accomplishments, most notably those that result in improved service or cost savings to residents.With the exception of the new  $11.5 million wastewater treatment plant, progress by the department has been mostly inconspicuous but will be felt by area residents in the coming years, with better reliability in all of the systems, from electrical to natural gas, water and sewer.“In FY ’07 the engineering division completed an in-depth condition assessment of the electrical and water systems. Condition assessments for sewer and natural gas were completed in FY 06. The assessments analyzed and identified the age, physical condition and deficiencies in the systems. This information is crucial in prioritizing projects and developing a 10-year CIP plan,” Williams Hill said.The water division now knows the age and condition of its pipes and pumps and tanks; the same is true for the gas and sewer divisions. The electrical division has examined  lines and transformers, and each division has plotted the conditions on a map for a graphic illustration of which pieces are likely to be replaced or repaired first.Customers will feel the effects with less frequent outages and fewer emergency situations.The utilities department has seen substantial cost savings by doing much of their design work for construction projects with its own staff. The department is now able to do most of the design work for construction projects in-house, only calling on outside consultants for very specialized projects.With its staff of three full-time design engineers, based on 7 percent of the construction budget for capital improvement costs in fiscal year 2007, the department estimates a savings of over $200,000 in design costs.Water conservation and the creation of a long-term water plan have been continuing efforts by the department. Williams-Hill said that water consumption in the county dropped considerably in fiscal year 2007, which ended for the department in June.She attributes the drop in consumption not only to a fairly wet year but also to the department’s ongoing public education campaign to encourage water conservation and compliance and to watering restrictions with water rule W-8.The department has hired a water conservation officer, due to start work in mid-January. Matt Dickens will perform energy audits for homeowners under a new program designed to help homeowners conserve.Improving the reliability of electrical power has been a major goal of the department under Utilities Manager Robert Monday, and the 2007 figures show substantial progress, bringing the time Los Alamos households spend without electrical power down from 427 percent of the national average in 2006 to 142 percent through June of 2007.Many of the outages on North Mesa were caused when underground power lines in the Del Norte/Del Sol neighborhood faulted, and those lines were replaced. The department completed the Del Norte/Del Sol project in 2007.The LA Scores performance measures used by the department show a 92 percent “good to excellent” rating from customers for electrical power reliability.“We anticipate continued improvement,” Williams-Hill said.A new wastewater treatment plant, built to replace an insufficient and aging plant in Bayo Canyon, went online in October, and is processing wastewater 10 to 20 times more efficiently than the old facility.The water can be used for watering parks and fields in Los Alamos. The treatment plant was completed on time and under its projected budget.An improved website for the utilities department and electronic bill paying are on the list of goals to be accomplished in the coming months.Online access to utility bills is now available to customers, but online bill paying is not ready to roll out. The department is looking at several options for electronic bill paying, but the ideal solution hasn’t been found yet, Williams-Hill said.“We still have a long list of things we’re working on, but we have a great crew and they really pull together,” Williams Hill said.