ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Rain is a welcomed sight in New Mexico, but it’s also a reminder of our state’s limited resources, and the continued pressure to manage the state’s water system. With the ongoing threat of dry rivers, KRQE Investigates sought to answer the following question: why can’t more people use recycled water?

The answers lie beneath the surface. In moments, New Mexico’s desert landscape can shift.

“It may only be in a 3 or 4-mile square radius, but the landscape can change very quickly,” explained Jason Casuga, CEO and Chief Engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “And then that can cause the river to swell quickly.”

There are people in Albuquerque like Jason Casuga, whose job it is to pay close attention to how water from the sky and in New Mexico’s rivers is used. “I think there’s a lot more eyes on the way that we manage water,” Casuga told KRQE. “And so I think the pressure is, at least that I think I feel, is explaining the realities of water. The resource of water is not endless.”

Managing a ‘finite’ resource

Casuga leads the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District or MRGCD. They’re focused on conservation, irrigation for farmers, and river flood control.

“So many livelihoods along the Rio Grande right now are relying on moisture from the rain and we need it,” said Casuga. “We as human beings need it. And there is a great investment in infrastructure.”

To put it in perspective, Albuquerque has seen fewer rainy days this year than we’re used to historically, according to data from the National Weather Service. But when it does rain in the desert, there’s another agency in town making sure your tap turns on.

“We see overall water use go down when we have a rain event,” explained David Morris, Public Affairs Manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. Morris is in charge of letting people know when they can’t use water, whether it’s a main break, a sewer collapse, or a construction project.

“The other main thrust of my job is public awareness, particularly around conservation and the need to save water because obviously, we live in a desert and we have a finite supply, and we want to make sure that it’s around for generations to come,” Morris added.

So why aren’t more people and places using recycled water?

Public records show there are nearly 70 accounts hooked up to the Water Authority’s “non-potable” pipelines. There are 40 locations on the north side of Albuquerque and 28 on the south side connected to those non-potable pipelines.

Non-potable means the water isn’t safe to drink, but it doesn’t always mean that water is recycled or reclaimed. Non-potable water also refers to untreated water from the river. Both can be used for things like landscaping, parks, golf courses, and open space.

Recycled water tank at Puerto Del Sol golf course

The city’s Puerto Del Sol golf course off Gibson is one example of a city-managed course that uses recycled water, with a large recycled water tank visible on the grounds. “That way the water gets to be used twice and we’re not using drinking water for something like just keeping a parking lot green or whatever,” said Morris.

But there are plenty of places that don’t have access to or can’t use recycled water. Take some of the biggest water users in the city, for example.

Public records show the Water Utility Authority supplied over 200 million gallons of water to the Arroyo Del Oso golf course in northeast Albuquerque within about a year. None of the 200 million gallons were from recycled water, but rather ‘non-potable’ water from the river.

When asked why more facilities, businesses, or homes can’t be hooked up to recycled water, Morris explained, “Well, the main issue is just the geographic availability of the reuse system.”

Map of Albuquerque’s non-potable pipelines. The south side is connected to recycled water, while the north side is connected to river water. Map generated with CABQ data by KRQE data reporter Curtis Segarra.

A map of the city’s non-potable pipelines explains why most facilities using recycled water in Albuquerque fall only on the south side of the city. The north side of town, including Balloon Fiesta Park and Arroyo Del Oso golf course, is hooked up to non-potable river water.

Building out water reuse infrastructure for the rest of Albuquerque is part of the long-term plan. But it takes time and money, Morris explained.

Reuse infrastructure takes lots of time and money

“It’s definitely going to be a process of years,” Morris explained. “We’re still in the planning process,” he said, of the plans to build out reuse infrastructure for the west side of Albuquerque.

“But just to get a system in place, kind of like what we’ve got going on the east side, is going to be probably at least $120 million,” Morris added. “So it’s not something you just find in the couch cushions, obviously.”

Costly infrastructure could mean rate hikes. However, Morris said the Water Authority is hoping to avoid rate hikes for customers whenever possible.

There’s another place in the heart of Albuquerque managed by the city that has access to recycled water, but can’t use it to water the field grass – Isotopes Park.

The groundskeeper for the ballpark said chemicals in reclaimed water aren’t good for the ballfield grass. However, the groundskeeper for Isotopes Park said they do use recycled water where they can on the berm, and for planters throughout the park.

“Reuse is going to be an increasingly important part of our water supply portfolio in coming decades,” said Morris. Along with planning for the future, Morris said the city has come a long way over the past few decades. “Albuquerque is actually a very successful example of water conservation in the Southwest.”

Morris said in terms of conservation, each person in Albuquerque back in the mid-1980s and ’90s used about 250 gallons of water per day. That number has since shifted to about 125 gallons per person, daily. Despite population growth, “We’ve cut our per capita water use in half,” said Morris.

Other facility managers of major water users say they’ve taken steps to cut down on water use, like adding xeriscape or letting water features run dry. But whether it’s a lawn, a golf course, or a farm, for people like Morris and Casuga – managing water is a job with the long game in mind.

Managing water with the long game in mind

“We hope within the next 40 years to greatly increase by ten-fold the amount of reused water that we’re utilizing throughout the community,” Morris told KRQE. “It’s going to be worth making that investment over time. And the future generations, I think, will thank us for having had that foresight.”

“For me, it’s probably a minimum of 50 years,” Casuga said of MRGCD plans. “This infrastructure, we’re thinking way far out. If our predecessors wouldn’t have done that, would we have the infrastructure that we have in place to enjoy Albuquerque the way that we are today?”

He argues without existing infrastructure, downtown Albuquerque could be prone to flooding from the river. “That took forethought and people planning for the future,” said Casuga. “And so we need to do the same. Our generation needs to do the same.”

Morris said the Water Utility Authority hopes to start on the reuse pipeline project on the westside within the decade, but it’ll largely depend on funding. Hooking up the north side of Albuquerque to recycled water on the south side should take place within the next couple of years; a much shorter government timeline.