Alamosa outlines rate increases — The Valley Courier

Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912
Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Utility rates will increase in Alamosa next year, and now residents have a better idea by how much.

The Alamosa city council Wednesday night approved on first reading and scheduled for a December 7 public hearing an ordinance increasing rates for water, sewer and solid waste (trash) disposal in 2017.

City water customers using about 8,000 gallons a month will see a 48-cent increase in their water bills, or just under 3 percent. Based on a conservation-oriented rate structure, customers using 50,000 gallons of water a month will see a larger increase, about $23 more a month, or about 25 percent. Customers using 100,000 gallons a month will see an even bigger increase, of more than $110 a month, based on the city’s conservationoriented rate structure.

Sewer rates will be increased by 8 percent across the board. The average customer using about 5,000 gallons a month will see an increase of $1.42 a month…

“We would never increase rates just to increase rates,” she said.

She said the staff has tried to manage the city systems as efficiently as possible to keep costs down, and staff wants the public to know the reasons for the increases. She explained that while the general fund covers many areas of city service, the enterprise fund covers the utilities, which should pay for themselves through rates and other charges. The enterprise fund revenues must not only cover operating and maintenance costs but also upgrades and improvements to the system, many of which are required by regulations and standards. The city cannot risk becoming noncompliant or its systems failing, Brooks explained. If the city is out of compliance with standards and regulations it could be fined or in an extreme case its systems be taken over by the state.

Sanitation and sewer rates have not increased since 2012 and water rates minimally since 2013, Brooks said.

The past increases have barely kept up with the normal cost of business but not covered capital improvement needs, she said.

“We have significant capital needs, especially with wastewater .”

She said funding sources like the Department of Local Affairs do not want to provide funds to communities where ratepayers are not paying their fair share.

The city contracted with Willdan Financial Services to perform a rate study, and the rate increases are based on what the consultant found and recommended.

Water conservation is key

Water revenues needed to increase by 6 percent, but the city is not proposing to increase rates 6 percent across the board, Brooks explained.

Part of what is driving these costs is the new groundwater rules taking effect in the San Luis Valley. To comply with the rules, the city is working on an augmentation plan, an effort costing upwards of $3 million.

If the city wants to continue providing municipal water, it must comply with these rules, Brooks explained.

The water rate structure takes conservation into account , Brooks added.

“We heard very clearly from council we needed to do more in conservation,” she said.

The city created a water smart team that has been looking at several measures including reducing irrigation needs on city-owned properties while still maintaining those properties for uses such as soccer fields.

“This team looked at every park and right of way the city owns and ways to reduce water usage,” Brooks said.

The team is also: looking at ways to educate the public on how to reduce water usage; creating programs to help residents on fixed incomes; and looking at ways to encourage landscaping changes to use less water and be more deer resistant.

In 2007 the city created a conservation-oriented staggered rate system that charges a higher rate to those who use larger amounts of water. The proposed 2017 rate structure adds another category for industrial users such as the school district and Adams State, which irrigate large areas and might be able to reduce that usage.

Brooks said another reason for larger water users, whether residential or commercial, to pay more is because it costs the city in infrastructure to accommodate that large of a volume.

“We have to build a system for the peak instead of normal residential usage,” she said. “There is additional cost to the city to have a system to meet that peak demand.”

Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg said Alamosa averages 1.2 million gallons a day during the winter but 5.1-5 .2 million gallons a day during the peak summer demand season.

“That’s all irrigation,” he said.

Another reason to be conservation oriented, Brooks explained, is because Valley water users can no longer continue pumping down the system.

“We don’t live in an environment that is water rich,” she said, “and we have been living like that. If you want to live that way, make a choice in landscaping that does not match the environment we have, there’s a cost for that.”

Councilor Liz Thomas Hensley said compared to San Francisco, where she was from, “we haven’t even touched what is conservation where I grew up.”

People were fined if they used too much water, could only water on certain days and used gray water for their yards.

She said with the water issues here, conservation should be taken seriously and those who choose to water more should have to pay more.

Councilman Jan Vigil said he grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is a desert, like the San Luis Valley, and he believes strongly in conservation.

Sewer system has significant needs

Sewer rates will be increased 8 percent across the board. Brooks said the capital needs in wastewater are significant . Some parts of the treatment system have become obsolete, and the city cannot even find parts and can only find one person anywhere who is qualified to work on the system.

One example is the UV (ultraviolet) system, which the city is cannibalizing parts from one unit to try to keep another working, and there is no backup if the one UV unit fails.

One motherboard is being jumped with a nail.

“When that board fails and it’s going to we can’t even replace it,” Brooks said. “This is an emergency.”

Another costly item, required by the new discharge permit, entails moving the discharge point, which will cost about $500,000. Fixing the HVAC system will cost another $100,000, repairing the aeration system will take another $500,00, and the list goes on, Brooks explained.

The city has deferred many of these repairs and replacements but cannot continue to do so, Brooks explained.

“This is something where we have significant capital needs that is driving the need for a rate increase,” she said.

Rates still comparatively low

Brooks said the city has performed an exceptional job to try to keep costs low. She shared comparisons with other municipalities, not in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses” but to show that even with the extensive system Alamosa has to operate, it has kept rates low, especially compared to other cities.

For example, with the increases the average Alamosa municipal customer will be paying about $42 a month for water and sewer while the average customer in Gunnison pays about $47 a month, East Alamosa $62 a month, Salida about $65 a month, Monte Vista about $73 a month, La Junta about $81 a month, Montrose about $87 a month, Pagosa about $98 a month and Durango about $131 a month.

Councilor Charles Griego said he did not care what other communities were doing but wanted to make sure Alamosa was taking care of its people, and he appreciated the fact the staff only recommended increases to cover the services and capital improvements needed.

Alamosa Mayor Josef Lucero also commended the staff and consultant for dealing with this complex and difficult issue.

“There are so many of us that go to the tap, turn that water on and don’t realize what really goes into every drop that comes out of that tap,” Lucero said. “It’s important for us to realize what we are paying for is basically life, because water is life. That’s our lifeblood here. We need to take care of it.”

Water rules costly for [Alamosa] — the Valley Courier

Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912
Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Complying with the state groundwater rules will not be painless or cheap for the City of Alamosa.

The city, like hundreds of well owners throughout the San Luis Valley, will have to comply with the recently filed state groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin.

City staff and legal counsel Erich Schwiesow have already been preparing for the inevitable compliance.

Well owners who must comply with the groundwater rules must join a water management sub-district or submit their own augmentation plans to the water court. The city of Alamosa is submitting an augmentation plan that will detail how the city plans to comply with the rules so it can continue pumping water from its wells for municipal use.

Schwiesow updated the Alamosa city council during a recent work session on the compliance process, and City Manager Heather Brooks updated the council on the compliance cost.

Brooks estimated the city’s cost to comply with the rules would be about $2.1 million. The rules require those who are pumping water from wells which constitutes the city’s water supply to replace the injuries their well pumping causes to surface water rights and to help restore the basin’s underground aquifer system. In Alamosa’s case, Schwiesow said the city must repair injuries to three rivers in the Valley, the Rio Grande, Conejos and Alamosa Rivers.

The city does not yet possess enough water rights to make up for its calculated injuries and sustainability obligations, so city staff members are currently negotiating for one water purchase that would help take care of that problem but may need to make more than one water purchase.

“We are looking for surface water and we are looking for groundwater,” Schwiesow said.

Brooks said the purchase the city is currently negotiating would be for surface water rights, but finding groundwater to help the city meet its sustainability obligations might be more difficult.

“We’ve been looking. There’s just not a lot out there,” she said.

The cost of the water rights is part of the $2.1 million compliance cost, with other portions including legal fees and possible water storage costs. Brooks said initial estimates were much higher than that, at about 3 million.

Bringing that cost down, Schwiesow and Brooks told the council, is the fact the city will receive credit for its accretions, the water it puts back into the system from the wastewater treatment plant. In fact the city has surplus accretion credits of 800 acre feet annually it is offering for bid starting at $250 an acre foot for a five-year lease. See the city’s web site at

Schwiesow explained that the city has made an application in the water court to exchange the accretion credits it has below Alamosa farther upstream on the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers to cover depletions the city is obligated to replace on those two rivers.

How much the city will have to replace is determined by a groundwater model that predicts how the pumping of certain groups of wells, designated in “response areas ,” affects surface streams, Schwiesow explained. Alamosa is in the Alamosa/La Jara Response Area, he said.

He also gave a hydrology lesson to the city council about how water melting from snow in the mountains recharges the San Luis Valley’s aquifer system and how the water under the Valley floor is divided by clay into unconfined (more shallow) and confined (deeper) aquifers , but there is connectivity between the aquifers. The city’s potable water wells are located in the deeper confined aquifer ranging in depth from 1,400-1,700 feet, according to Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg. The city has a total of seven wells.

Schwiesow also gave the council a water history lesson about priority being given to water rights on the basis of when they were first granted, with older rights having more seniority. Groundwater rights are very junior, he explained, because the wells were drilled long after water rights were granted to those using the surface streams. However, the state has not administered the wells in the past under the priority system, and a prior attempt to do so failed. The state was successful , however, in issuing moratoriums on drilling new wells both in the confined and unconfined aquifers, Schwiesow explained to the council.

Last fall the state promulgated rules requiring the junior groundwater rights to replace depletions they are causing to surface streams, and although filed, those rules are not yet in effect, pending challenges being resolved in court, Schwiesow added.

Councliman Charles Griego asked about how soon the city had to come into compliance with the state water rules. Schwiesow said the city has to be in a sub-district or have an augmentation plan or substitute supply plan within a year after the rules are finally approved by the court.

Griego asked why the city was in such a hurry to put the augmentation plan together now if the legal process could take years before the rules are finally approved.

“Because it takes time,” Schwiesow said, “and we want to be ahead of the curve. If we wait until the rules are approved, we can’t get it done in a year. It’s a long process.”

He added, “We can’t just sit here and wait until the court cases are over.”

The council talked about the role of the weather and climate in the basin’s diminished aquifer levels and how important it is to emphasize conservation measures with city water customers. Brooks said city staff is looking at ways the city itself can conserve water, perhaps implementing more xeriscaping for example.

“We could do a better job in the conservation piece,” said Councilor Jan Vigil.

Alamosa water rates to increase

Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912
Alamosa railroad depot circa 1912

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

It’s good news, but not as good as originally reported. Contrary to an earlier misperception, water rates in the City of Alamosa will increase next year just not above what the city council had scheduled to do several years ago.

Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks clarified that although the city will not have to go above the increases the council had set a few years ago, there will be rate increases next year.

She said in 2011 the city council passed an ordinance setting rate increases for five years. With additional costs to replace filters in the water treatment plant this year, city staff were concerned they might have to increase fees above the 2011-approved levels for 2015, but the staff were able to incorporate the additional costs for the filters into the budget without increasing water fees above the levels set out in the 2011 ordinance.

The city faces additional water system challenges in the future, such as the possibility of stricter arsenic regulations, and the staff will closely monitor those developments regarding their potential budget impacts.

City water customers are charged a monthly service charge plus a monthly volume charge according to their metered use. According to the ordinance the council approved in 2011:

  • In 2012 the volume charge per 1,000 gallons was $1.22 up to 8,000 gallons; $1.54 from 8,001-50 ,000 gallons; $1.97 from 50,001-100 ,000 gallons ; and $2.56 per thousand gallons in excess of 100,000 gallons.
  • In 2013 the volume charge per 1,000 gallons increased to $1.26 up to 8,000 gallons; $1.59 from 8,001-50 ,000 gallons; $2.04 from 50,001-100 ,000; and $2.64 per thousand gallons in excess of 100,000 gallons.
  • In 2014 the ordinance increased the water fees to $1.30 per 1,000 gallons up to 8,000 gallons; $1.64 from 8,001-50 ,000 gallons; $2.11 from 50,001-100 ,000 gallons; and $2.72 per thousand gallons in excess of 100,000 gallons. Next year, 2015, the ordinance set the following rates, which reflect a slight increase over the 2014 water fees: $1.35 per 1,000 gallons up to 8,000 gallons; $1.70 from 8,001-50 ,000 gallons; $2.19 from 50,001-100 ,000; and $2.80 per thousand gallons in excess of 100,000 gallons.
  • The ordinance the council passed in 2011 extends through 2016, increasing the above rates from 2015 to 2016 by 6 cents, 7 cents, 9 cents and 10 cents, respectively.

    The public hearing for the city’s 2015 budget is scheduled this Wednesday, Oct. 15, during the 7 p.m. city council meeting at city hall, 300 Hunt Ave., Alamosa. To view the budget online go to www. and click the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

    Alamosa: Water infrastructure funding is in short supply

    The water treatment process
    The water treatment process

    From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

    Treating Alamosa’s water is becoming more expensive. With more rigid arsenic standards coming into play several years ago, the City of Alamosa was forced to build a water treatment plant. Recently, Alamosa Public Works Director Don Koskelin said arsenic standards might tighten up again, which could force the city to revamp its treatment system, resulting in an expensive adjustment.

    This week Koskelin informed the Alamosa city council of another more immediate problem with the city’s water treatment plant, and the council authorized funding for a pilot treatment system. Koskelin said for six years the membranes that filter out the arsenic in the municipal drinking water supply provided excellent performance. Then all of a sudden in the last year the city started having problems with the membranes. The manufacturer recommended a more stringent cleaning schedule, which meant using more chemicals, which in turn meant more expense. Koskelin said the cost increase for the chemicals alone is nearly $290,000 a year.

    Another option would be to replace the membranes, but that would cost threequarters of a million dollars or so. Koskelin said the life of the membrane system was supposed to be 15 years but it has only lasted about six years.

    Another solution, which hopefully will be less expensive , will involve lowering the pH of the water, which should improve the filtering process and arsenic removal.

    Koskelin recommended that the city enter into a pilot project to test this theory for three months with Clearlogx. He said the city has a threemonth permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to test this system. If it works, the city could buy the system and 90 percent of the money the city paid during the three-month trial would count towards the purchase price. The total purchase price of the system is $175,000. The city will be leasing it for $4,500 a month.

    “We need to do something,” Koskelin told the council.

    He estimated the pay off on this system would be about two years, and the life of the system should be about 15 years.

    Addressing the water treatment situation will result in a budget adjustment, Koskelin added, primarily from enterprise fund surpluses. Koskelin said this solution might also help the city meet stricter arsenic standards when/if they come down in the future.

    “If it doesn’t drop lower than 2 parts per billion we should be able to meet those new standards,” he said. The current standard is 10 parts per billion, set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment is considering a stricter standard, which Koskelin estimated at an earlier council meeting would likely not take effect for a couple of years, if the state moves forward with it.

    More infrastructure coverage here.

    Alamosa High School students get recognition for Rio Grande River data collection project

    A picture named riogranderiver.jpg

    From the Valley Courier (Julia Wilson):

    “We were one of 60 schools from Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico that tested the river for 11 different parameters on the same day and at the same time,” said AHS science teacher Katie Montague. The goal of the study is to create a snap shot of the river from the headwaters all the way down into Mexico. The plan is to continue the project annually to create a history of data that can be analyzed by scientists now and in years to come.

    “This is an incredible accomplishment,” Tricia Cortez, Dia del Rio 2010 coordinator with the Rio Grande International Study Center that sponsored the project, said. “We created tremendous excitement among teachers and students throughout the basin, and witnessed a growing awareness and concern for issues impacting our river and watershed. With the help of our many partners throughout the basin, we hope to replicate this event year after year.”

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    San Luis Valley: Rio Grande River erosion mitigation project update

    A picture named alamosanationalwildliferefuge.jpg

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    Heather Messick, an employee of the project, said it is designed to stabilize the river’s banks and stem erosion, which increases sediment in the river. More sediment can alter the river’s channel, heat up water temperatures to the detriment of fish and change the riparian habitat as the river eats more of its unstable banks. Gone are banks that resembled cliff faces and stood as high as 14 feet over the river in spots. In their place are sloping banks that gradually push back to the flood plain.

    The project also includes a series of rock barbs that jut into the river channel. The piles of rock push the river’s current into the center of the channel and away from the banks. It’s expected they will keep the banks in place until willows can spread.

    The shrubs carry an added benefit of being the primary habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered species that makes its home along rivers in six other Southwestern states.

    Unlike much of the Arkansas Valley, tamarisk invasion is not a threat to the exposed banks. Messick said researchers aren’t entirely sure why the invasive plant hasn’t taken root in the San Luis Valley, but hypotheses range from the valley’s cooler temperature to its higher altitude.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.

    Restoration project on the Rio Grande through Alamosa

    A picture named riogranderiver.jpg

    From the Valley Courier (Julia Wilson):

    “The river was broken into small sections and a study that included hydrologic, capacity and floodplain, geomorphology, riparian habitat, and diversion structure analyses were made of each section,” [Mike Gibson, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District] said. “Local planning issues were taken into consideration and integrated into the studies. Then the consulting team doing the study and the technical advisory committee were ready to prioritize projects.”[…]

    Gibson said the information from the study gave guidance on how to restore the health of the river and provided seven goals:

    • Maintaining and/or improving the quality of the water in the Rio Grande River is the first goal set out in the restoration plan.

    • Have stream flows mimic a natural stream flow in rivers.

    • Implement diversion structures to encourage the best use of the river.

    * Protect the channel and 100-year floodplain.

    • Maintain or enhance the river for recreational use.

    • Lead local groups that support the project in best use improvements.

    • Seek funding from state, federal and grant sources.

    The projects along the river are all aimed at improving the way the river functions, he said. There will be multiple benefits from the work being done on the local stretch of the Rio Grande River. These benefits include stabilized stream banks, reduced erosion and sediment loading, reconfigured channel, re-establishment of native vegetation (willows), and an improved stream flow.

    More Rio Grande River basin coverage here.