The Albuquerque–Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (“ABCWUA” or “the Authority”) recently made the first of five annual grant payments to the Rio Grande Water Fund (“the fund”) under a Memorandum of Agreement with The Nature Conservancy. ABCWUA, the first public utility to make significant financial investment in the fund, committed to pay $1 million over five years.
The fund was established in 2014 as a 20-year comprehensive plan to protect water sources in the Middle Rio Grande and Rio Chama watersheds. It is supported by nearly 40 environmental, business, and public organizations in New Mexico. The primary activity is thinning forests. Increased tree density and hotter summer temperatures over the last century have caused normal wildfires to burn with greater intensity, which has harsh impacts on water sources. Areas that have experienced mid- or high-severity fires have reduced water storage capabilities—meaning the soil holds less moisture and less snowpack, so there is less water released into the streams. In addition, fires produce debris flows and flooding that significantly degrades water quality.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that the economic impact of damaging wildlife to be up to $2,150/acre burned. The cost of thinning one acre of dense forest is estimated at $700/acre—and there is a potential economic benefit, depending on how the supply of trees removed by thinning is used. Based on this economic analysis, The Nature Conservancy is focused on prevention, rather than reaction. However, there is a transition period in which activity will be centered on restoring previously impacted lands.
ABCWUA’s participation in the fund is consistent with their recently-adopted long-range water management strategy, known as “Water 2120,” which focuses on using alternative methods to improve water supplies, rather than continuing to acquire new supplies. Among the plans outlined are:
- water reuse and recycling for direct potable and non-potable uses and aquifer storage and recovery (“ASR”)
- develop a groundwater management plan that includes measuring and reporting aquifer levels, addressing water quality and contamination, and identifying sites for ASR wells
- establish a new water conservation goal of 110 gallons per capita per day over the next 20 years
- develop a storage plan that uses existing storage capacity and identifies additional needs for storing excess return flows
- develop an environmental plan that includes activities to restore watersheds and bosques and addresses issues related to endangered species.
Policy J-4 of Water 2120 specifically states, “The Water Authority should work collaboratively and provide funding to protect and restore watersheds of the San Juan-Chama and Rio Grande,” which makes this funding commitment a critical step toward meeting ABCWUA’s goals.
Maggie Hart Stebbins, Bernalillo County Commissioner and ABCWUA Board Member emphasized that point. “We’re proud of how far we’ve come in securing water for a growing population in an arid climate,” says Stebbins. “This collaboration with The Nature Conservancy takes a broader view to ensure future generations have enough clean water to thrive. The surface water we use for drinking travels more than 200 miles from its source to our customers. Improving forest health in our watershed along that route is a key part of our water plan.”
Written by Marta L. Weismann