Thursday, January 18, 2001

Water Standards Expensive

By Steve Shoup
Journal Staff Writer
    Rio Rancho will comply with a new federal rule to greatly reduce arsenic in drinking water, but it could cost the city up to $21 million over the next few years to do so.
    "We're not real satisfied with this, but we're moving ahead toward compliance," Rio Rancho Utilities Director Larry Webb said Wednesday.
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced that the arsenic standard for drinking water will be cut from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb.
    "That's where we expected it, that's where it was rumored for some time," City Administrator James Jimenez said Wednesday. "Now we'll take a look at our cost estimates and see how much it will cost to comply."
    Arsenic is common in ground and surface water in the West, and often originates from volcanoes. Long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to several forms of cancer, diabetes and heart, lung and nerve disease, according to the EPA.
    Tom Udall, the state's 3rd Congressional District representative said Wednesday the standard might not be final because George W. Bush will become president Saturday. Bush's director of the EPA could revisit the standard.
    Udall, a Democrat, also said arsenic is harmful but it's not clear how much is harmful.
    "Where is the point where you can protect human health and also deal with the cost issue?" Udall said.
    Many small communities, such as Rio Rancho, may have to spend large amounts of money on the arsenic standard.
    "This is a very significant monetary impact on a city and I don't know how they could handle it without some assistance from the state and federal government," Udall said.
    Udall visited Albuquerque and Rio Rancho on Wednesday during a congressional recess to meet with constituents.
    Several other officials, including Webb, have said it's unclear how much arsenic is harmful.
    "This wasn't based on good science," Webb said, referring to the EPA decision.
    Arsenic is in well water all over the area. A study last year showed that 10 of the city's 19 wells drew water out of the aquifer with arsenic concentrations above 10 ppm, with two wells over 40 ppm.
    "Short-term exposure to high doses of arsenic can cause other adverse health effects, but such effects are unlikely to occur from U.S. public water supplies that are in compliance with the existing arsenic standard of 50 ppb," an EPA news release said.
    The city is trying to come up with a way to cut the cost. Jimenez said an experiment being set up now on a city well could greatly cut the cost of removing arsenic in water.
    Severn Trent Environmental Services, which manages the city water and sewer systems, this month is trying out new technology to pull arsenic out of water. It should have results in a few months.
    Meanwhile, the city is considering using existing filter technology to pull arsenic out of the water. Webb told the city Utilities Commission on Tuesday that it could cost $21 million over three years to build a filter plant.
    The annual budget for the Utilities Department is about $18 million a year, and another $24 million a year for the rest of city departments combined.
    Commission members wanted to know how the city could pay for the filter project. Dee Fuerst, deputy utilities director, told the commission the city could apply for state and federal loans and grants.
    Webb suggested a bond issue which could be funded by impact fees. Those fees are charged to new developments to pay for costs of providing city services, such as water and sewer, to new residents.
    However, money for water purification could come from residents.
    "If we can't secure funding from other sources, we will secure it from our customers," Webb told the commission.
    Webb cautioned, though, that dollar figures and time lines were still preliminary. The calculations were part of the Utilities Department's submission to the city's Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan, which will be reviewed by the City Council next week.
    "For the moment, I've got to put something on the board," Webb said. "This is not a budget. This is the approval of a plan."
    "Somewhere there has to be reality between what's planned and what can be done," Commissioner Herb Bowman said.
    "We wanted to let you know what the numbers were coming in at," Webb said. "These are large numbers."
    Commissioner Roger Witt said he wanted to see more plans and "...a more reasonable time line."
    However, the commission unanimously voted to send the department's plans, including the arsenic removal plan, to the council for approval.
    The city also may have to cut the amount of arsenic in the treated waste water it sends into the Rio Grande. Sandia Pueblo, which is regarded as a state on EPA issues, is considering setting an arsenic limit of 2.3 ppb in its part of the river, Webb said.
    Rio Rancho would have to cut waste water arsenic below what is acceptable in drinking water, Webb said.
    The city is planning to re-use treated waste water, including irrigating parks and injecting back to the aquifer, with the goal of releasing no water into the river.
    The commission Tuesday endorsed creating a staff position in the Utilities Department for a waste water re-use planning manager.