Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series Cheryl Everett wrote on water in Rio Rancho. The first part appeared in the Sept. 5 Observer.

Rio Rancho residents often compare the city’s water rates to the lower rates in Albuquerque. But it’s an “apples to oranges” comparison.

One reason is Rio Rancho’s widely dispersed population – and the need to spread utilities infrastructure across a larger area of land. Albuquerque residential water customers also face an automatic 2 percent water rate increase every two years, a policy which has been in effect for several years.

Among other water supply costs, the City of Rio Rancho Water Utility has an $3.4 million capital reserve this fiscal year, according to the utility’s five-year financial plan balanced budget. This, while the city’s unpaid water bill write-off can reach as high as $3 million, when about a decade’s worth of unpaid bills were written off three years ago.

Meanwhile, the City of Rio Rancho purchased its water system in 1995 and has invested millions of dollars in system maintenance since then. Despite that, the city is trying to avoid raising water rates for now, if operational and maintenance expenses allow.

Cheryl Everett

There will be long-term growth in demand from future residential and commercial water users. But the city — while aggressively recruiting new business to create more local jobs and gross receipts (sales) tax revenue — remains mindful of our limited water supply.

City officials acknowledge that some alternative water sources are scarce and costly. Water that lies deeper in the aquifer is of lower quality (requiring more treatment) and is more costly to pump. There is also the issue of disposing of toxic materials produced in the desalinization process.

The city of Rio Rancho currently consumes 65 gallons of water per city resident per day. But it’s difficult to project how long our water supply will last because so many variables factor into that calculation.

The amount of water the city can pump is subject to negotiation with the Office of the State Engineer, and further influenced by future water rights acquisitions.

Residential water conservation — things like xeriscaping, cooling with “refrigerated” air or having a free city water audit — can “make a huge difference,” according to city officials.

The science of water supply and demand is improving over time. The city has contracted with the U.S. Geological Service for research and water supply projection data.

Completion of the study is expected within the next year. At that time, the city will have a more accurate roadmap for projecting future water needs and supplies.

But even then, predicting if or when “the well will run dry” is misleading. The city has done all due diligence to prepare for the future.

But the only rational answer to the water supply question is: It depends. And it depends most heavily on visionary, data-driven government stewardship.

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

Cheryl Everett