City Councilors Question Water Restrictions

Customers of the city of Española’s utility services have been paying extra fees on their water bills for at least two years because of an emergency water restriction put in place under a previous administration, and public works officials are questioning whether the limits should still be in place.

The city’s water emergencies ordinance gives the city authority to restrict water usage for all customers of its water and sewer utilities, in the event of a shortage in the water supply. Shortages can be caused by limited supply, increased demand, inadequate or unsafe water lines or storage facilities, or a disruption in the water system caused by, for example, an earthquake.

When asked last week which stage of the city’s water emergency management plan is currently in effect, Utility Billing Supervisor B.J. Martinez provided an alert distributed by former city manager Joe Duran on June 26, 2014.

According to the alert, customers are currently mandated to comply with a stage-three water warning. Duran issued the alert because the city’s wells were not producing enough water at the time, but Public Works officials doubt that is still the case today.

“The City is experiencing a continuing shortage of water and the wells are not able to produce the water needed to supply our citizens and local businesses as well as provide adequate fire protection,” Duran wrote in the alert.

City Manager Mark Trujillo is ultimately responsible for changing the water conservation stage, according to the ordinance. When Trujillo saw the alert on Aug. 26, he said he thought the city was under stage two and not stage three.

According to the ordinance, stage three applies when the water and sewer utility cannot meet between 36 to 50 percent of the water demand from customers.

The restriction adds a “Water Supply Shortage Surcharge” to customers’ utility bills. Residential customers who use between 8,000 and 20,000 gallons must pay an extra $5 for every 1,000 gallons they use. Commercial customers must pay an extra $1 for every 1,000 gallons they use, no matter how much they use. It also prohibits residential customers from using more than 20,000 gallons of water in a month.

When asked whether she thinks customers were erroneously billed because of the water restriction, City Councilor Peggy Martinez said, “I hope to God that’s not the case. I don’t know if it is, I would hope that this stage three restriction has been legitimate.”

Chief Financial Officer Joyce Sandoval said Tuesday, that the city includes the surcharges in the cost breakdown for each individual bill, but there is no way to find a total of all the surcharges assessed across all customers in the utility system.

“That’s gonna be changed to level two,” Councilor Pedro Valdez said in a phone interview, Aug. 26. “We’re not in that situation (stage three shortage) right now. I’ve been trying to change that for a year. Since then, our wells have been pumping pretty good.”

Stage two applies when the city water utility well is unlikely to be able to meet from 16 to 35 percent of the water demands of its customers, and places fewer restrictions on water usage.

Stage four is the highest level described in the ordinance, which would prohibit any irrigation of landscaped or turfed areas and any washing of vehicles or equipment.

Valdez said he has presented a proposal to lift the restriction to the Public Works Committee in the past, but did not receive an answer because the Committee’s membership changed in March with the city elections.

Valdez said he wants the issue discussed at the Committee meeting, at 6 p.m., Sept. 6, at city hall.

“That’s gonna be changed to level two,” Councilor Pedro Valdez said in a phone interview, Aug. 26. “We’re not in that situation (stage three shortage) right now. I’ve been trying to change that for a year. Since then, our wells have been pumping pretty good.”

Stage two applies when the city water utility will is unlikely to be able to meet from 16 to 35 percent of the water demands of its customers, and places fewer restrictions on water usage.

Stage four is the highest level described in the ordinance, which would prohibit any irrigation of landscaped or turfed areas, any washing of vehicles or equipment,

Valdez said he has presented a proposal to lift the restriction to the Public Works Committee in the past but did not receive an answer because the committee’s membership changed in March with the city elections.

Both Valdez and Committee Chair Peggy Martinez said they want to see the issue brought up at the next committee meeting, Sept. 6.

Councilors John Hernandez and Robert Seeds, the other two members of the committee, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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