Albuquerque’s municipal water utility, in a strikingly worded memo yesterday, said the latest plans for managing a huge groundwater spill on and adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base represent “a breakdown” in what was once a partnership among the water utility, the Air Force, and the New Mexico Environment Department.
The new plans back away from aggressive state-mandated efforts to clean up the spill, and weaken ongoing efforts to characterize the extent and seriousness of the contamination, according to the memo. According to the Water Utility, the new plans are “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and undermine Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water”:
The spill, discovered in 1999 but likely dating to the 1950s, came from a long slow leak in an Air Force aviation fuel pipeline adjacent to the base runways. As you can see from the map, it has spread nearly a mile off of the base, moving beneath a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood. Because of its proximity to Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority drinking water wells, it is by far New Mexico’s most serious groundwater contamination problem.
A tense relationship between the ABCWUA, the Air Force, and state regulators had thawed in 2012-13, as the New Mexico Environment Department and the Air Force invited the Water Utility into the decision-making process. But the new memo, from the Water Utility’s Rick Shean (a graduate of the UNM Water Resources Program!), confirms what I and others have been hearing for some months – that the relationship has broken down.
This poses interesting governance questions that I’ve used as a case study in my new academic life. The Water Utility does not have legal standing as a regulator here – that role falls to the New Mexico Environment Department. But the Water Utility, especially under the leadership of Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins and Water Utility Chief Operations Officer John Stomp, plays a critical role in looking out for the interests of the community. We made significant progress after the Air Force and NMED invited ABCWUA into the decision-making tent.
This issue is on the agenda for tonight’s (Wed. March 21, 2018) ABCWUA board meeting. 5 p.m. at the Council Chambers, Albuquerque City Hall building.