he Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority supplies water to 675,000 residential, commercial, and institutional water customers in a service area centered primarily on
New Mexico’s Bernalillo County. Providing water to this desert region is a challenge, and over the last few years, the Water Authority has transitioned its water supplies from 100 percent groundwater to a more sustainable portfolio that includes surface water and nonpotable reuse. But the Water Authority’s plans go further than that: It has developed a 100-year plan to ensure a sustainable supply of water far into the future. For its groundwater management efforts and its 100-year plan, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) awarded the Water Authority with its 2018 Platinum Award for Utility Excellence.
In this interview, the Water Authority’s chief operating officer, John Stomp, speaks with Municipal Water Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the challenges and advantages of planning for the very long term.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you ended up in your current position.
John Stomp: I am a civil engineer by trade. I hold a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico and have been working in the water and wastewater industry for more than 30 years. I started work for the utility in 1996 and in 1997 was promoted to water resources manager, a position I held for 13 years. In 2010, I was promoted to chief operations officer for the Water Authority and have been in that position ever since. In total, I have been blessed to be working for the utility for going on 24 years.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the Water Authority’s history and services.
John Stomp: The Water Authority was previously a department within the City of Albuquerque. In 2003, the New Mexico State Legislature created a new regional entity called the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, with board representation from elected officials from the city and county. The Water Authority’s service area includes most of Bernalillo County, including the City of Albuquerque and certain unincorporated areas outside the city limits. It also serves parts of Sandoval County and has extended service to some folks in the East Mountains. The Water Authority currently provides water and sewer service to about 675,000 people. Considering that we serve customers across this entire region, I think that being a regional entity that combines service to the city and the county makes great sense for our customers and helps us to manage water resources more effectively.
Joshua Dill: What is the source of your water?
John Stomp: In 2008, the Water Authority transitioned from sole reliance on groundwater by adding surface water from the San Juan-Chama Project to the community’s portfolio. That surface water has now become our main source of supply, representing about 70 percent of our production. The transition away from the aquifer to surface water was part of a comprehensive water resources plan adopted in 1997 and updated in 2007. The plan included water conservation and the use of nonpotable supplies for irrigation and industrial use.
Joshua Dill: Where does that surface water come from?
John Stomp: In 1963, our community contracted for water from the San Juan-Chama Project, which delivers New Mexico’s share of the water from the Colorado River. The water is diverted on three tributaries of the San Juan River and is conveyed southward across the continental divide through a series of diversion facilities and reservoirs. It’s finally diverted, via the Rio Chama, into the Rio Grande for eventual delivery to Albuquerque. The Water Authority is entitled to 48,200 acre-feet per year from the project, which is a portion of New Mexico’s overall share of 11.25 percent of the water from the Upper Colorado River basin. Until 2008, the Water Authority (and before that, the city) provided this water to other entities but didn’t directly use it for itself. Since 2008, the Water Authority has been using the water to meet the needs of the local community.
Joshua Dill: Who are your customers?
John Stomp: Around 60 percent of our users are residential customers. Around 47 percent are single families and another 10 percent or so are multifamily residential customers. A further 10 percent of our customer base is made up of irrigation-only account holders who primarily use nonpotable recycled water to irrigate golf courses and parks. The remainder is composed of institutional and commercial users like schools, hospitals, and businesses. A very small percentage of our water, probably less than 1 percent, goes to industrial users.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us about the Water Authority’s aquifer management work?
John Stomp: In 1997, we adopted a water resources management plan with the purpose of transitioning away from sole reliance on the aquifer. This has since evolved into a 100-year plan that we call Water 2120. Back in 1997, the aquifer was dropping at a rate of 1–3 feet a year, which brought its long-term sustainability into question. We had surface water available to us that we weren’t using, so we decided to make the transition to this renewable source and to emphasize nonpotable reuse. We built $500 million worth of infrastructure to make it happen, including a riverside diversion and raw water pipeline, a state-of-the-art water treatment plant, and about 50 miles of large-diameter transmission pipelines to integrate the surface water into the existing system. We also constructed two different nonpotable reuse systems so that we could minimize the use of potable water for the irrigation of green spaces and golf courses.
In 2008, the new water treatment plant, pipelines, and diversion facility were completed, and we began providing purified surface water to our customers. In terms of preserving the aquifer, the system is working as planned. In the decade since we started using surface water, the local aquifer has rebounded by more than 50 feet in some places and the regional aquifer has risen by about 20 feet.
Joshua Dill: Would you give our readers an overview of the 100-year plan?
John Stomp: Our 100-year plan, which was adopted in September 2016, involves using existing supplies, bringing on new supplies if necessary, and adopting new conservation goals so that we can preserve and protect the aquifer for the future.
When we started looking at the future, we tried to map out the possible trajectories of our supplies and demand, looking at the potential growth of this region and at the possible effects of climate change, using the Bureau of Reclamation’s study on the possible reduction of surface water in the Colorado River. We came up with low, medium, and high scenarios for each. The high-supply scenario was that our current water supply would remain constant. The medium-supply projection was that, because of climate change, we would experience a reduction of 10–15 percent in surface water supplies over the next 60 years. The low-supply scenario, which was developed as part of Reclamation’s work, projected a reduction of up to 30 percent of our surface water in the future. Those projections can be reevaluated every 5 or 10 years or as more scientific information becomes available.
Once we had our supply and demand scenarios, we started to think about how we would fill the gaps in supply that we saw. We ended up deciding to implement a reduction of water use from the current level of 135 gallons per capita per day to a level of 110 gallons per capita per day by 2037. Our customers have already halved their water use in the last 23 years, from 250 gallons per capita per day in 1995 to 135 in 2018. We looked at reuse and other alternative supply options that might help us get there. We ranked 47 different alternatives and selected from among them through a public process. We were able to fill the supply gaps we foresaw for the medium-supply/medium-demand scenario, but there was still a gap for the hot, dry, low-supply scenario. That gap, however, would not reach its worst state for 80 years, so our board felt pretty confident that as we update this plan over time, we will get better information and a better idea of how to address the problem.
The majority of the supply alternatives we identified involved using our existing supplies in new ways. For example, in the future we will have more wastewater
available. We can treat that to drinking water standards and use it as a drinking water source for the future. We can also take advantage of additional reuse opportunities to irrigate more turf and possibly transition industrial uses to nonpotable supplies.
In total, the supply projects outlined in Water 2120 are expected to cost $400–500 million. We put a financial plan together and analyzed whether additional rate increases would be needed to pay for the infrastructure. Fortunately, we think we can do it without additional dedicated rate increases because we’ll be retiring old debt from the San Juan-Chama Project and freeing up those resources.
There was extensive public involvement during the development of the Water 2120 plan. A series of public meetings was held at the outset to get feedback from our customers about what the plan might look like and whether 100 years was a realistic timeline. Our customers were adamant that they did not want us to leave this problem to our children. There were also more than 14 meetings with our internal Technical Customer Advisory Committee, and we presented to the Water Authority board about 10 times over the course of 2 years.
Joshua Dill: Will the 100-year plan involve more storage and infrastructure?
John Stomp: Absolutely. The infrastructure will be used to take advantage of our existing water resources, primarily wastewater effluent. In New Mexico, groundwater users are required to pay the river back for pumping in areas where the river and the aquifer are connected. We are responsible for repaying our depletions on the Rio Grande, and we use our water rights and wastewater effluent to do just that. In the future, we will be pumping less groundwater and therefore will have additional wastewater effluent available to use. That wastewater effluent will be a source of drinking water in the future, whether directly or indirectly.
Joshua Dill: What are some of the challenges of funding your 100-year plan?
John Stomp: Over the last 10 years, we have been implementing an asset management plan, which is intended to prioritize and fund infrastructure rehabilitation projects and reduce our backlog of needs. That has required some water and sewer rate increases. Ultimately, we plan for those to provide $80 million a year for the capital program outlined in the asset management plan. We’re ramping up to that level and are currently spending around $60 million per year on rehabilitation.
In addition, we borrowed money to fund the $500 million San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project along with the two reuse projects. The debt service payments for those projects will be completed around 2026, freeing up some funding for the infrastructure required under Water 2120. As we
discussed previously, there are no water rate increases planned for implementation of Water 2120.
Joshua Dill: How have you educated your customers?
John Stomp: Every year, we hold at least four public meetings called Customer Conversations, where we pick an important topic and discuss it with our customers. Some of the recent topics included the 100-year water plan and our asset management plan.
As part of our water conservation education program, we also host every fourth grader in the Albuquerque area for a 1-day educational program on water conservation, water quality, and other important topics. These sessions have been going on for more than 20 years, so water conservation has really become ingrained in the local culture. We also host irrigation and garden classes every summer, partner with local businesses on conservation issues, and provide presentations throughout the community. We have a monthly newsletter, bill inserts, and advertisements promoting efficient water use and providing drought updates when necessary. We have water conservation rebates and other incentives to reduce use, and our enforcement staff work with our customers to educate them on reducing water waste.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us about the Water Authority board’s vision for the future?
John Stomp: To date, our board has taken the long view. It has supported continued investment in our infrastructure and has approved the resources necessary to ensure a sustainable and efficient operation over the long term. It understands and supports our asset management efforts, including using our work-order system to track and document work and to make sure we are providing the best value for our ratepayers. It has also supported our commitment to sustainability in the realm of energy usage. We have or are implementing solar energy projects capable of providing about 8 megawatts of power per day in addition to our cogeneration facilities, which use biogas and natural gas to provide power for our wastewater treatment plant. That is the vision that the Water Authority board, along with Executive Director Mark S. Sanchez, has outlined for us. It’s a powerful vision. AMWA thought it was a good vision, and we appreciate the recognition it gave usforit.