In fact, SFR has learned that while there are approximately 10,000 privately owned wells in Santa Fe County, less than 10 residents reported their water usage in 2007 and 2008, according to Santa Fe County Public Information Officer Stephen Ulibarri.
“It’s a problem that I’ve been talking to county staff about for years,” County Commissioner Jack Sullivan says.
The situation may be about to change. Sullivan has been working with county staff to create a database of all the private wells in the county. He points to a $60,000 grant the county’s Water Conservation Program received from the Department of the Interior in April, of which $50,000 is going toward the well-metering program.
Deputy Land Use Administrator Penny Ellis-Green says the list of residents who own wells in the county should be ready by the beginning of October, after which the county will begin sending out letters to the thousands of residents who have not been reporting their usage. The county requires residents to report usage and has an ordinance to impose fines after a first offense.
“We’re hoping the first round of letters will be ready to go out by December,” Ellis-Green says, adding that she hopes the county will be able to hire more staff to ensure meters get read.
“It’s a difficult situation,” she says. “The county’s huge and getting to every single person is hard.”
The county held a water conservation fair on Aug. 23, and Ellis-Green says more workshops will come.
“It helps us more to be able to educate people rather than to spend our time and assets fighting it in court,” she says.
In working toward greater regulation, the county may be ahead of other counties in the state. Jim Sizemore, water rights director for the Office of the State Engineer, says he is unaware of any other New Mexico counties that regulates wells.
David Morris, public information officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, says residents in that county are asked to water less, but there are no metering requirements.
“It’s a huge problem,” Albuquerque City Councilor Michael Cadigan, who sits on the water utility’s board, tells SFR.
Alberto Baros, a planner with the Rio Arriba County Planning Department, says his county, like Bernalillo, has no reporting requirements. “It could be a problem,” he says, “but at this point, we have nothing…it’s all monitored by the state.”
However, water-use levels at the state level are considered generous by many. Households are allowed to use up to 325,850 gallons per year, approximately 890 gallons per day. By comparison, City of Santa Fe water users use approximately 100 gallons per day.
To max out state-mandated water restrictions, “you’ve got to water an awful lot,” Sullivan says.
Permits for domestic wells are approved by the state engineer; however, there is little in state law to allow the state to deny permits, although legislation to change that has been introduced repeatedly.
Pushing through a program to increase oversight of county well-users may be one of Sullivan’s last projects; his term ends in January.
“It’s like anything,” he says. “Good ideas take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get implemented.”