AZTEC — Rain may at last be falling, but so are water levels in the Animas River, this city's sole source of water.

Currently down to 100 cubic feet per second, the dwindling Animas River just below Aztec is a tell-tale sign -- the Four Corners area is in a moderate-level drought.

In response, the city's utilities are keeping an eye on water levels and consumption rates as it works to provide the critical services all 2,500 of its customers rely on.

As of July 1, base charges for residential and commercial waste water rose more than 30 percent, an increase of roughly $8 per month. The base charge customers pay each month grew to $18 from $14. And the $3 charge per 1,000 gallons used grew to $4.

"The average use per winter month by a residential customer is around 4,000 gallons," said Delain George, utilities representative for the city.

The city averages water use by taking the average gallons used in the winter, between November and March, and divides that by five to calculate the seasonal rate.

In a city memo this month, Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge emphasized that the water utilities have not made a profit in years, necessitating the cost hike to offset recent automation upgrades at both plants.

"Wastewater and wastewater utilities losses have been and continue to be offset by other funds in the city that operate at a surplus," Burbridge wrote. "However, we cannot continue to operate this way. The city is at a point where we need to increase the revenue for the wastewater utility in an effort to reach the break-even point where it operates in the black."

Andrew Galloway, chief operator at the city's water and waste-water plants, has seen a lot of change in the fifteen years he's been in charge of water treatment for the city.

"It may surprise a lot of folks how involved it is to produce a single glass of water," Galloway said. "From where we takee water from the (Animas) river to where we send clean water out from the plant, there's a lot that goes into it."

The city's water plant on Navajo Dam Road produces 500 gallons of drinking water from Animas' sediment-laden water. In a day, the plant can produce more than two million gallons.

With four distinct treatment systems buoyed by new computerized automation equipment installed earlier this year, the plant is running more efficiently and saving money, too, officials say.

Requiring less manpower and chemical treatment, the water it produces is set up for long-range investment, not quick pay-offs.

"The upgrades we've seen this last year have definitely taken us from the 20th to the 21st century," Galloway said. "Beyond the automation, we've doubled our voltage capacity, which saves money when machines aren't having to run twice as hard to do the same work."

Half of the water plant has a state-of-the-art management and measurement system that allows easy access to data on water levels and quality.

In the works for future improvement are two water tanks built in 1997. Upgrades are planned to have them functioning at the level of two older tanks that were modified earlier this year. The upgrade would enable the entire plant and its four systems to communicate electronically.

"Right now, only plants one and two communicate with each other," Galloway said. "Our next big push is bringing plants three and four on board."

The complex electronic equipment comes at a cost. Plants one and two were upgraded for roughly $400,000. Improvements to plants three and four will require around $500,000 to update, which could be even more costly.

Taken along with the $11 million the city invested in the construction of the wastewater treatment plant on S. Oliver Dr. a few years ago, the city is fixing aging infrastructure before it's too late.

"It's a Catch-22 for us, for sure," Galloway said. "We, of course, want to encourage conservation, especially with river levels so low, but we also are here to provide a service, to provide water for Aztec."

Galloway remembers well the bad drought in 2002 that caused the city to take drastic action to preserve water storage, ultimately suspending carwashes and laundromats. It was a time when many turned from watering vast grass lawns to water-friendly xeriscaping.

"People were limited to watering (lawns) every other day," he said. "It had a dramatic effect on usage and people's habits. Hopefully, they'll do so voluntarily before there are any mandatory restrcitions. We're not there yet, but we could get there."



James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.