El Prado to Taos: water relief to end Monday

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While the town of Taos has been repairing its municipal water pumps for the past two weeks, the independent water system in El Prado has pushed over 400,000 gallons of water a day into the town's lines, thereby preventing disruptions to service.

But the neighborly assistance for nearly a month has put a strain on El Prado's water infrastructure and out of concern for the longevity of its own wells and pumps, the board of the El Prado Water and Sanitation District voted unanimously to shut off water to the town on Monday afternoon (May 21).

"In an effort to be good neighbors to the [town], [El Prado] has gladly been willing to help cover the shortfall in water production due to the pump failure," read a letter from the district hand delivered to the town Tuesday (May 14). The board took its vote on the matter the previous night.

"This whole procedure is now putting a strain on [El Prado's] two wells as well as El Prado's staff…The board feels that we have to protect our own production wells so that we do not get into a bad situation ourselves," it read.

Taos Mayor Dan Barrone said Wednesday (May 16) that El Prado's timeline is workable and anticipates having the most substantial and immediate repairs to a municipal well pump done before El Prado's planned cutoff.

Taos first began experiencing issues with its municipal water system April 19. Aging pumps in two of the town's three major municipal wells went down, and the town council quickly voted to declare a state of emergency. The council also voted to impose the highest level of water restrictions, stage 5. Outdoor watering was obviously banned, but laundromats and car washes were also barred from operating. Schools and local government offices closed for a day to ease their pressure on the system.

During that time, the El Prado water district supplied water into the town's lines thanks to an "interconnect agreement" that was already in place. Christine Dimas, an employee at the district, estimated they were sending about 430,000 gallons of water a day to the town.

It's no easy task to get the water into the lines. The three employees at the El Prado district have been taking turns every morning and night opening and closing valves on their wells. While one of the wells usually runs eight hours a day and the other only once a week, both have been going during the past couple of weeks. The staff has to run one at night because doing so saves them more than half of the electricity bill.

The El Prado district has a bit more than 1,100 customers, according to Dimas. It primarily services business and homes along Upper Ranchitos Road and Paseo del Pueblo Norte up to the Overland Sheepskin complex; however, it also has lines and intermittent customers north to the Old Blinking Light and west on U.S. 64 for a short distance.

Crews with the town of Taos were able to repair the two pumps that went down, and El Prado shut off the interconnect valve May 2.

However, water usage in the town spiked, and within days, the town was again asking the El Prado district for enough water to help keep its lines pressurized.

A few factors conspired to nearly deplete the town's water reserves in the days after the first round of repairs were finished.

For one, water demand "skyrocketed," according to a May 10 press release from the town. Usage reached 1.25 million gallons a day, which is 25 percent over the town's pre-outage average and 60 percent greater than the usage under the stage 5 restrictions.

"The town anticipated that during the weekend there would be a modest spike in consumption due to pent-up demand…but that it would flatten out by Monday morning when most people returned to work. However, that didn't happen," the town's press release read. A 1.5 million-gallon reserve tank was being exhausted by last Tuesday (May 8).

In addition less water was coming out of the ground than usual. During the initial repairs, the town replaced a pump with a capacity of 300 gallons per minute with one half that size. According to Barrone, engineers believed at the time cracks or other issues could be affecting the impaired well near Centinel Bank, so they decided to step-down the size of the pump. They've since determined major issues do not exist with the well and are replacing it with a pump of the original size.

Furthermore, Barrone said the functional pumps are going "full blast" and are producing more water than it used to. He also said the town has brought a previously closed well (No. 8, located near the sewer treatment plant) back online and are cleaning it up "so if we need more water in the future, we know where to turn."

Having more municipal wells online, Barrone said, will help spread the burden around its infrastructure rather than stressing any one pump, which is exactly the logic behind El Prado's decision to cut the town off come Monday.

During the May 14 board meeting of the El Prado water district, board member John Painter said they are running their two wells harder than usual and that one is nearly 18 years old. Too much stress could push it over the edge of functionality. And district officials stress that usually the system only pumps between 100,000 and 180,000 gallons of water a day, compared to the nearly half a million its been running for the past couple of weeks.

"We're in excellent shape to confront the drought without restrictions. But if we keep helping the town, we may have to restrict our own customers," Painter said during the meeting where employees and board members were visibly frustrated that the town seemed more interested in putting on music festivals than adequately planning for its future water consumption.

The El Prado board felt the town was not showing enough sense of urgency given the severity of the drought. According to a monthly water supply forecast, snowpack and precipitation in the Río Grande Basin is at or near historic lows. The headwaters of the Río Grande, including the mountain streams around Taos County, have the highest forecasted streamflows in the state -- and they're only between 25 and 45 percent of average.

In the letter to the Taos mayor and council, the El Prado district suggested the town again impose stage 5 restrictions for the rest of the week "to help conserve water and fill your stage tanks."

But it doesn't appear that's likely to happen.

Barrone said he does not anticipate the town will go back into stage 5 restrictions, which require a vote of the council. The town will stay in its current stage 4 restrictions even after the pump is repaired, so the town can monitor the system.

And Barrone thinks the stage 4 restrictions are adequate to ride out the summer even with the additional demands a hot and dry summer will put on the municipal water system.

"We always want people to conserve, even in a good year. This is one of those dry years, and we need to conserve as much as we can," Barrone said.

But there's a balance to be struck between sounding the drought alarm for residents and tourists and making sure visitors don't scatter because of the perception Taos is worryingly dry.

"There is a situation, but we're not out of water. We want people to come, but they have to know there's restrictions," Barrone said.

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