Water infrastructure getting a closer look

By Karl Terry: PNT managing editor

No matter what happens in Washington with the Ute Pipeline bill later this year, Portales officials say their focus is going to stay on supplying well water for a growing community.

“I’m trying to stay positive that we’ll get the federal dollars we need to build the pipeline,” said City Councilor Gary Watkins. “The fact is we don’t have enough water rights there (Ute Pipeline Project) to provide what we will need.”

Portales City Manager Debi Lee says even if the project is approved it will be years before the city would begin using water from Ute Lake. In the meantime she says the city intends to keep investing what it can into converting agricultural water rights and drilling new wells. She says that at least two wells a year is the goal.

“We have to ensure that we have a water supply and the wells are a sure thing,” Lee said.

After water and infrastructure issues bubbled to the top of the municipal election campaign this spring, city councilors met in a workshop Monday with Public Works Director Tom Howell for a presentation on the city’s infrastructure. Howell went over everything from the city’s well fields to its storage tanks and the condition of the lines under the city.

Water wells

The city utilizes two well fields. One of those, north of Portales, is called the Sandhill Well Field that is supplying a smaller amount of water and is utilized primarily in the summer months. The wells there were drilled between 1959 and 1981, Howell said. The main supply of water comes from the Blackwater Well Field east of Portales and south of Greyhound Stadium. That field has 23 wells drilled from 1967 to just this year when two agricultural wells will be converted to municipal use at a cost of $200,000.

Howell says the best wells at Blackwater produce 300 gallons a minute while the worst ones run approximately 75 gallons a minute.

Howell says the city has in excess of 12,000 acre feet of water rights. But rules require that those rights stay within a four-section area, hamstringing development to some degree.

“Even though we’ve got a lot of water rights that doesn’t mean we can necessarily use them,” Howell said.

Howell says for now the wells are keeping up with demand but the output of the wells varies with the water table in an overall decline. That coupled with a steady growth of the city is reason for some urgency he said.

City officials say a few years ago Portales was using more water per person than the state average but in the last few years that has pulled closer to the state average of 8,000 gallons per month and Lee says that looks to be dropping even further with higher rates that went into effect last year.


Storage

The city has four water storage tanks with 9.25 million gallons of storage in the complete system. The tanks east of Portales at Johnson Hill collect the water coming from Blackwater while an underground tank at Boston and Lime holds water from the Sandhills Well Field. The other tank is the overhead tank at Rotary Park which hold 2.5 million gallons.

Howell says a computer program allows city officials to monitor the levels of each tank — what is going in and what is going out.

Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr. questioned whether or not more storage would be a good investment for the city.

Howell said the storage capacity was meeting the needs of the city. He said that it would be better to invest money into more wells.

Water lines

Howell said there is approximately 91 miles of water lines inside city limits with pipes ranging in size from two inches to 24 inches in diameter.

He and Lee say that despite the problems experienced in the last few years with a 24 inch line on the west side of town rupturing three times the city’s lines are in overall good condition.

Howell notes that there is six to seven miles of four inch and smaller water lines that need to be replaced. He says those lines are a problem because sometimes they don’t provide enough capacity for the meters that are being installed on them. He says those lines are slowly being replaced as they come up and when money is available.

“One of our biggest concerns is fire flow,” Howell said. “One problem is that fire trucks pump a lot more than they used to. The other is we don’t have real good flow in certain areas. We’ve got a lot of six inch hydrants tied to four inch lines.”

Howell said there are 411 valves on the system with at least five more planned on the 24 inch line that has a history of breaking.

Lee says that work is still on track for the loop line that will help relieve pressure on that vulnerable line and provide redundancy if water has to be shut to that line again because of a break.

Conservation and reuse

Lee said water conservation is high on the city’s list of priorities with several city properties converted to low water use and Xeriscaping and more planned. The city is also encouraging conservation among residents with educational programs aimed at conservation.

The city is also taking a hard look at how it can reuse its effluent water more efficiently and will look to incorporate that into design of a new waste water treatment plant to be built in the near future.

City councilors will hear a presentation from officials of the town of Cloudcroft, which has recently begun an aggressive water reuse plan. Lee says it’s called “toilet to tap,” though she admits that might not be the most appealing name.

Howell reminded councilors that the city has contracts with several farmers who are already utilizing effluent water for irrigation but he says in the future he would like to see that water coming back for in-city usage.

“I may not see it in my lifetime, but I think my grandkids will see it (water reuse) everywhere,” Howell said.

Financing the future

“I think we’re making progress,” Lee said. “But it’s just an expensive, long-term investment that no one wants to work on.”

She says the financial picture for infrastructure redevelopment has improved greatly over the four years she’s been with the city.

She said that four years ago the city was regularly transferring $4 million a year out of the utility funds into the general fund to stay afloat. She says that transfer is down to no more than a $1 million a year now, freeing up much needed cash flow to go back into water flow.

The good news in this bad situation is that it’s made people a lot more aware of our problems,” Lee said, mulling the turmoil surrounding the recent line breaks and waste water treatment problems.

“I think we’re on the right track and we just need to keep putting in wells,” Watkins said. “I always wish we could do more but we just don’t have the money. We’re going to have to keep trying to hustle up the money anywhere we can.”