U.S. Water News Online
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Residents here have embraced a water
conservation plan that will bring lasting and positive change to this
region, said city water conservation manager Jean Witherspoon,
proving that urban and suburban beautification can go hand in hand
with wise water management.
Water regulations in effect since last March in Albuquerque now
require that private residences and businesses alike have no more
than 20 percent of their property landscaped for high water use. This
means the conventional Kentucky bluegrass lawn, typically a major
drain on local water supplies, may no longer hold sway in this arid
These regulations, which include assessments for water waste
violations, are already helping to alleviate depletion of the Middle
Rio Grande Aquifer, said Witherspoon. This is vital to the region,
she said, because this aquifer is currently Albuquerque's only source
of water supply, and recent studies have indicated its rates of water
depletion are far greater than originally assumed.
Thirty years ago the State Engineering Office for New Mexico
studied the aquifer and concluded that water supplies did not warrant
any special conservation effort, Witherspoon said. The assumption was
that the aquifer would replenish at roughly the rate of removal.
But a more recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey in August
1993 showed that water in the Middle Rio Grande Aquifer is being
recharged at only one-third to one-half its rate of removal. The city
of Albuquerque commissioned the Geological Survey for this study to
provide as thorough and unbiased a report as possible, officials
said. City water managers will be using a model of the underground
water system the engineers created for this study to monitor the
aquifer on an on-going basis, collecting data on water quality and
This new appraisal of available water supplies in the Middle Rio
Grande Aquifer is long overdue, according to Witherspoon, who said
the recent study has been called a "state-of-the-art" analysis by
water conservation experts.
Outdoor water use -- or overuse -- is the primary target of
conservation efforts here at the moment, said Witherspoon, who
explained that single family dwellings represent 60 percent of billed
water use in Albuquerque. With ever-expanding waves of suburban
development here, she said, outdoor water use is increasing, and the
largest portion of this use is usually devoted to lawns. This
unnecessary water expenditure results mostly from ignorance of the
native habitat and plants which can withstand the low water levels of
the Southwest, she added.
"The new water policy is not merely a matter of imposing
regulations, but of educating the public as well," said Witherspoon,
who added that early in the campaign for wiser water management, the
city enlisted the involvement of its citizens, gaining solid
community support for a more comprehensive approach to water
Under the new regulations, homes are not required to landscape,
she explains, but if they do, they must abide by the city ordinance
which keeps high water use confined to 20 percent of the property.
This involves knowing the water requirements of plants and making
appropriate long-term choices, she said.
With the help of city agencies and many civic organizations,
Albuquerque residents are discovering many attractive alternatives to
the typical water-thirsty lawn, city officials said. Chief among
these are xeriscapes, which make use of native drought resistant
plants as well as rocks and stones to beautify yards and grounds.
Albuquerque now has a xeriscape council, which Witherspoon credits
for helping citizens develop more water-conscious approaches to
"So far," Witherspoon said, "the results have been very positive.
People seem to realize we need long-term solutions to deal adequately
with the problem of water supply."
The rising cost of water here may be contributing to this mood of
cooperation. One Albuquerque neighborhood, Shadow Hills, recently
installed xeriscaping after discovering the neighborhood
association's water bill was averaging $25,000 a year, simply to
irrigate 12 acres of Kentucky bluegrass.
The new regulations stipulate a scale of ascending fines for water
violations, ranging from $20 for the first violation to $200 for the
seventh. Any further violations will result in flow restriction for
the resident, whether commercial or private.
"Fortunately, we haven't had any violations resulting in the most
extreme scenario," said Witherspoon. "The worst violation we've had
stopped at level 5, and this case is a holdover from last
Other practical ramifications of new water conservation measures
include increased fees for use of the public golf courses, raising
the basic greens fee for 18 holes by 71 cents, to about $13.57, not
including tax, starting July 1. This increase is the latest of a
string of rate increases amounting to 86 cents last year and 50 cents
each of the previous four years.
The added revenue is being used to keep this public facility
within the water budget stipulated by the new regulations, which are
more stringent for public properties than private, said Witherspoon.
Water conservation improvements to the golf course here include
installing more efficient irrigation systems, paving golf cart paths,
and reclaiming bluegrass areas with native vegetation.
In addition to conservation of aquifer water, Albuquerque is also
making plans to improve long-term water supply for the area by buying
some surface water from the San Juan Chama River, which is a
tributary of the Colorado. The purchase process has already begun,
said Witherspoon, but water from this source will not be available
for several years. River water must be diverted from the river and
treated. It then will be held in storage tanks for eventual use.
"If we were to start using this water today," she said, "we would
cut aquifer use by one-third."
Witherspoon explained that water in the Middle Rio Grande Aquifer
is still plentiful, and therefore quite pure. The only treatment
necessary at present, she said, is chlorination, although fluoride is
added to the city water. But significant depletion of the aquifer
will threaten water purity, and cities will probably face tougher
water quality standards in the future. If, for example, proposed
arsenic standards are adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), she said, the cost of water treatment would rise
"That is why conservation is so important," said Witherspoon.
"Wise use not only protects our water supplies, it can save enormous
amounts of money." Witherspoon estimates that a 30 percent reduction
in per capita water use would result in a savings of $175 million for
the residents of Albuquerque.
According to Witherspoon, Albuquerque is definitely "on the
cutting edge" when it comes to long-term water management. But she is
quick to add that this city is by no means the first to do implement
water conservation programs.
"We have learned a lot from what other cities have done -- especially Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas. The climate here in Albuquerque, as in Tuscon and El Paso, is dry," she said. "In this climate we must take a proactive approach to water management. The long-range water conservation plan we are implementing should help avoid water crises in the future."
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