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Albuquerque Celebrates a Decade of Drinking Water Security, Aquifer Recovery

February 5, 2019
By Duggan Flanakin

The San Juan-Chama Project, which diverts Colorado River basin water to the Rio Grande basin, now supplies the Albuquerque metro area with nearly 70 percent of its potable water and has helped the aquifer to recover.

On the 10th anniversary of its completion, New Mexico officials celebrated the fact the San Juan-Chama Project, which diverts Colorado River basin water to the Rio Grande basin, now supplies the Albuquerque metro area with nearly 70 percent of its potable water.

The $450 million investment, thought by many at its inception to be a boondoggle, has allowed the region to grow and prosper by providing water to which the metro area has the right under an interstate compact.

Albuquerque’s access to river water has also spurred a significant recovery of the city’s underground aquifer and boosted supplies for other communities and farmers along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

Following the Compact

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact set out the basis for the equitable distribution of water in the seven states along the Colorado River.

The Upper Colorado River Commission, created in 1948, allocated 11.25 percent of the Upper Basin’s 7.5 million acre-feet to New Mexico.

The San Juan-Chama Diversion captures part of New Mexico’s apportioned share of Colorado River basin water and conveys it from southern Colorado through 26 miles of tunnels under the Continental Divide, into the Chama River, part of the Rio Grande basin. This provides Albuquerque with up to 15 billion gallons per year.

The project included construction of a $160 million, 80-million-gallon-per-day water treatment plant that delivers treated river water to homes and businesses in Albuquerque. To date, nearly 137 billion gallons of river water have been purified and delivered to the city and nearby communities and farms.

Over the decade since the Juan-Chama Project was completed, groundwater levels have risen by 50 feet or more in some areas.

Suggests Water Markets

Although the water project has successfully supplied Albuquerque with safe drinking water, water use in arid New Mexico could be improved further through the creation of water markets, says Albuquerque resident Paul J. Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation.

 “New Mexico is in good shape when it comes to its water supply, considering the dryness of New Mexico’s climate and the maldistribution of limited water supplies due to the lack of a true water market,” Gessing said. “Agriculture remains by far the dominant user of water in the Albuquerque area, but there are productive agriculture uses and there are rather dubious ones.

“The ultimate problem is water markets do not really exist, so getting water to the ‘highest and best’ uses is a tricky proposition,” said Gessing. “The same is true with the rise of the ‘buy local’ agriculture movement because, from the perspective of the most efficient, least wasteful use of water, it would be better if many products consumed by residents of the desert Southwest were produced in areas with greater natural water supplies and shipped in.”

Duggan Flanakin (dflanakin@gmail.com) writes from Austin, Texas.