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Combined Communities

A legislative proposal from a key Santa Fe lawmaker aims to help small associations form water authorities

Small, regional water cooperatives might have a chance to pool resources if everything works out according to state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth’s plan.

Wirth, a Democrat who represents a huge swath of Santa Fe County, is sponsoring a bill in the legislative session that began last week that would make it easier for small communities to formally cooperate. He says Senate Bill 1 would allow—but not require—multiple mutual domestic water systems to come together and form a regional utility authority, not necessarily to share water, but for engineering, auditing and legal staff.

“Right now, if four systems want to form a regional system, they have to come to the Legislature and carry an individualized bill,” Wirth tells SFR.

State Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, are co-sponsoring the measure.

If SB 1 becomes law, communities such as Cañada de los Alamos, which has struggled with water shortages in recent years, could combine forces with other nearby communities.

Chita Gillis, secretary treasurer of Cañada de los Alamos’ community water system, tells SFR the freedom to create a new, shared water authority might not solve shortages, but it would help the board plan for the future. When the community’s well began drying up and clogging with silt, Gillis sought relief from the state and county. Gillis, a retired occupational therapist, was basically starting from scratch when she wrote grant proposals for state and federal assistance.

In 2020, the community ran dry and began paying to have water hauled up a winding road to stock its tank, which serves 25 houses. Even that proved time-consuming for the five-person board. Increased diesel prices and the number of trips it takes to supply the small community southeast of Santa Fe meant the system had to tap into its $30,000 reserves to cover the cost. Luckily, Gillis says, she secured state funding through the New Mexico Board of Finance.

But, she adds, it took many phone calls and a lot of research for which she’s not formally trained.

“There’s a staffing issue, there’s an expertise issue, there’s a continuity of knowledge issue,” Gillis says.

She’s requested that Santa Fe County extend service to Cañada de los Alamos, but someone with more experience in infrastructure expansion could probably be much more efficient.

“Everyone is so willing to help, they really are,” she says. “But you’ve got to find them first.”

In theory, the community well, which is positioned in a low spot, would pump water to the tank up the hill. From there, gravity takes the water to each house. Some houses have their own well, but even those are slowly becoming unusable. For now, the giant water tank with a big red marker indicating its level serves as a harsh reminder of water scarcity. The day SFR visited, the marker showed about 35,000 gallons left, which Gillis says is nearly 10,000 gallons less than the area’s average monthly use.

Wirth says if SB 1 passes he hopes communities such as Cañada de los Alamos and Eldorado, which has faced its own shortages, can come together to share labor resources and gain access to capital.

“If you get a number of these systems that are all in the same region and you give them the ability to join together, [there will be] huge economies of scale,” Wirth says. “One lawyer, one hydrologist, one engineer, one auditor and, when you get a bigger entity, the ability to reach out and potentially do some bonding, get money of that nature.”

Gillis says her board has not had explicit conversations about whether it might join another community to create an authority, but she welcomes the idea.

“It’s only the beginning of a long process of us as mutual domestics pooling our resources,” she says. “But at least there’ll be a structure and hopefully some kind of resource task force to help us do that, because we don’t know how to do it.”

The Senate Conservation Committee approved the measure Tuesday morning on a unanimous vote, and its next stop is the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Herrera, one of the three sponsors, represents a district with several mutual domestic water systems. She told the committee the ability for small utilities to pool resources could help make water more affordable.

“Most of our systems are under 100 people and these are not people of wealth, frankly,” Herrera told committee members. “I represent poor communities and the going rate right now is about $50 a month for water for most systems.”

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