Cheryl Everett

It could be said that many of Rio Rancho’s early residents were homesteaders.

Though no covered wagons thundered across the plains to claim free land, many Rio Rancho settlers came here in search of their own plot of earth, on which they could live as they pleased without being constrained by codes, covenants and other quasi-governmental restraints.

Park a semi in the front yard? No problem, even today.

Water during the early 1960s in many cases came directly out of the ground from private wells, at least until Rio Rancho’s original developer built and operated a water utility, which was, by all accounts, substandard. But the water was relatively cheap.

The city eventually purchased, and overpaid for, the private water system in 1995 and set up a Water Utilities Commission to provide public input on water policy. Still, the commission and governing body seemed unwilling to fully fund a modern water system for Rio Rancho’s growing population and emerging business sector.

The city eventually commissioned a professional water-rate study that led to governing body adoption of a five-year rising rate structure in 2013. But some city councilors tried to flip the rates back down after a couple of years to score political points.

And the utilities commission, by the openly pro-Tea Party, tried to postpone or cheapen wastewater treatment plant upgrades and other critical system needs.

Despite that, the city council from 2014-18 did protect the scheduled increases as the city’s growth continued to drive up water demand and costs. The Water Utilities Commission was merged into a more broadly defined Public Infrastructure Advisory Board.

Still, the allure of cheap water has never lost its hold, at least on a segment of the population. Playing to that base, political opportunists continue to attack Rio Rancho’s water rates, without regard to history or current and future needs.

The original 2013-16 step-up rate increase helped fund well upgrades, improved wastewater treatment facilities and a water re-injection system that helps sustain our aquifer.

In 2019, a new system-sustaining rate increase won governing body approval, though barely. The additional revenue will help pay for:

• Maintaining the utility’s cash reserves and financial solvency, which impacts the city’s bond ratings and borrowing costs;

• Adequately accounting for increases in the cost of materials and services, like utilities; and

• Continuing to fund water line and physical facility improvements.

A city council election looms in two days.

Only some candidates are on record as supporting a future water rate increase if needed. Other candidates either equivocate or flatly promise to vote “no” on any future rate increase.

The Rio Rancho Observer edition of Feb. 9 features detailed council candidate profiles, including their respective stands on sustaining our water system. Check these out online or in back issues at the Observer office.

In any case, turning off the taps is not an option.

But neither is a second-rate water system. That’s exactly where self-serving water-rate politics will always lead.

(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)