BY STEPHANIE NAKHLEH
for the Los Alamos Reporter
This story is the sixth in a series of guest articles about the housing situation in Los Alamos. The first is on LANL, whose hiring has further tightened the housing market; the second looks at housing from the real-estate-agent perspective; the third takes on the viewpoint of several young renters struggling to find adequate housing and debating their future in the town; the fourth is a brief history of how the new low-income housing on DP Road came to be. The fifth talked about the role Los Alamos County’s Community Development Department has in housing production.
The impact of more housing on infrastructure
Facing a chronic housing shortage that puts home ownership (or even rentals) out of reach for an increasing number of people, the county of Los Alamos has been developing plans for years to accommodate more residents—not just LANL employees, but teachers and nurses and other essential workers. As a result of those efforts, made through a lengthy public-input process, the county is on track to increase housing units by hundreds and possibly thousands. This is good news for workers who have been forced to make lengthy, costly commutes, and good news for residents who have seen basic services and small businesses stutter and fail due to staffing shortages. But the population increase has a lot of people asking a different question: can the infrastructure handle the influx?
Readers of this series, whom I’ve invited to write to me with ideas for further articles, have noted that Los Alamos is situated in the high desert. The region is experiencing a megadrought and record-setting heatwaves, so water is a pressing concern. Other readers point out that the electrical grid seems fragile: power outages, some long, are not uncommon. Still others are concerned about schools and traffic. These are all topics worthy of discussion: this one will focus on utilities, and especially water. I spoke with James Alarid, deputy utilities manager for the county, and also with Paul Andrus, head of the Community Development Department, and Dan Ungerleider, the county’s economic development administrator, to get their thoughts on utilities as they relate to housing and population growth.
Upgrading infrastructure, one area at a time
One of the first things these county administrators explained is that when a town increases its population, it also increases its tax base, bringing more income into the county—money that is invested into upgrading infrastructure. “New people give us the ability to afford to replace old utilities,” said Ungerleider. “There’s an economy of scale,” agreed Andrus. “When we do revitalization or redevelopment projects, that’s redevelopment from the ground up. From below the ground up. So, in each case, we are replacing all of the old utilities.”
Crew of Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities repairing a water line. Photo courtesy of DPU
Many areas of town that have been more recently redeveloped have the best-functioning, newest utilities, where some of the older parts of town, where not much new housing has been built for decades, are seeing utilities problems like water-line breaks and electrical outages, said Alarid. “There’s been actually over the last 20 years a huge amount of improvements and upgrades done in the downtown area, where our biggest commercial loads are, and where a lot of this this new development is,” he said. “The most common occurrences in the power failures now are within the neighborhoods, on some of the older facilities, like the single-family neighborhoods.” Those are due to direct-buried underground cables reaching the end of their service life, he said, and are being replaced as quickly as possible without rate-shock. “The money available to spend is directly tied to our revenues from our rates, so there is a tolerance to how much you can raise the rates,” he said.
While the low-density areas of town may continue to see some outages until all the cables are replaced, the high-density downtown is in better shape, he said. “The townsite, with the commercial and industrial uses and our most sensitive loads, we really put an effort into replacing that infrastructure. So that lends well for the [new] development.”
Higher-density housing is more efficient
Another benefit to the downtown redevelopment is that the higher-density housing being built there uses resources more efficiently. Single-family neighborhoods with lawns and sometimes pools use up to 10 times more water than neighborhoods with high-density housing like apartments and condos, according to this Portland State University study. “The more affluent the neighborhood, the more water the residents were likely to use,” this summary states. “That’s because those neighborhoods have more water-demanding landscapes, and homeowners there can afford to spend more on water.”
Image from a 9/21/22 presentation to the Los Alamos Board of Public Utilities, showing water use by household type
The US Environmental Protection Agency, in a report titled “Protecting Water Resources with Higher-Density Development,” also found that higher-density development is more water-wise, because it uses less water per person. “Nationwide, state and local governments are considering the environmental implications of development patterns,” the report states. “As low-density development and its attendant infrastructure consume previously undeveloped land and create stretches of impervious cover [e.g., asphalt] throughout a region, the environment is increasingly affected. In turn, these land alterations are not only likely to degrade the quality of the individual watershed, but are also likely to degrade a larger number of watersheds. EPA believes that increasing development densities is one strategy communities can use to minimize regional water quality impacts.”
Alarid puts it more succinctly: “Multifamily, because there’s not individual yards and big irrigation on individual homes, uses quite a bit less water than single-family,” he said. And it’s not just water: “Sanitary sewer and other utilities work more efficiently when there are more people using them,” said Ungerleider. “If you just look at units per linear foot of sanitary sewer: the pipe costs are based on length. [With density] downtown you’ll have more units using less pipes and less holes in the ground.”
With this efficiency in mind, towns in the arid southwest may have to reconsider historic density patterns: it’s illegal to build apartments, the most water-efficient type of housing, on most residential land in the United States. In Los Alamos, only 5 percent of the already-scarce residential land legally allows high-density housing like apartments. This is a common American land-use pattern, and some cities are overhauling zoning codes to allow higher-density housing like duplexes and townhomes in areas previously reserved for single-family housing only. In Los Alamos, areas like Quemazon and the Western Area already allow mid-density like townhomes, and future leaders may consider allowing such development into other areas where it’s currently prohibited. What Los Alamos is doing to correct the density imbalance is encouraging high-density housing in the areas zoned for it, like Downtown Los Alamos and White Rock Town Center. (Note that zoning can only stop housing, not build it, so upzoning to allow higher density is only a first step.)
Even as the town shifts to allow a more water-efficient development pattern, the question of how much water is available remains. We know the supply of water isn’t endless. If the town grows by several thousand people, will density be enough to protect the water supply?
Population grows, but water use drops: conservation is key
One place to look for answers is our neighbor to the southeast. Santa Fe has shown that conservation efforts can offset population growth: According to this 2022 article in the Santa Fe Reporter, since 1995 the population of the City of Santa Fe has increased by 25 percent, but the total amount of water consumed has decreased by 33 percent, proving that increased population doesn’t always mean increased water use. The City of Santa Fe credits its water-conservation efforts such as pricing water use to encourage conservation and offering rebates for rain barrels and high-efficiency toilets and washing machines.
Bernalillo County has also reaped the benefits of years of water-conservation work, said David Morris, public affairs manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA). “In terms of per capita water use we’ve reduced from about 250 gallons per person per day in the mid 1990s down to about 127 gallons per person per day currently,” he said. “It’s been a very long campaign of encouraging conservation.” As with Santa Fe, the steady replacement of high-use fixtures and appliances with more efficient models has been key, and the city has offered homeowners financial incentives to speed up this natural process. It’s also offered incentives “for removal of turf and replacement with desert friendly landscapes,” he said.
In addition to incentives, the ABCWUA, like the City of Santa Fe, has embarked on an intensive public-education campaign. “We’ve worked hard to educate everyone in community, but particularly young people, about the importance of conservation,” Morris said. “Through this effort we’ve chipped away at consumption. People are a lot more efficient in water use than they were 30 years ago; we want to keep working on that and get better. You have to engage the community; the community needs to understand the importance of it.”
Where Los Alamos gets its water
Los Alamos has an advantage over neighboring communities in that it’s in relatively good shape when it comes to water supply. To understand why requires stepping back a bit and understanding where our water comes from and how it’s allocated. The physical supply comes primarily from groundwater wells that draw on an aquifer beneath the Pajarito Plateau; that water is ancient and the aquifer deep. In addition to the physical supply, the county needs legal rights to use water, which are granted by the state. Those rights are granted in acre-feet annually, and Los Alamos County and LANL are together allotted 5,263 acre-feet per year, split about 70/30 between the county and the Lab, respectively.
“Over the last ten years, of that 5,263 acre feet, we only use about somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of the water right, so we have a buffer of about 25 percent available for growth,” said Alarid. “From a water purveyor’s perspective, that’s huge.”
Most counties in New Mexico are fully allocated or even over-allocated, meaning all available water is being drawn or overdrawn, Alarid said, but this is not true for Los Alamos. “We do have the luxury of having some extra capacity, so as far as our water rights, we’re fine,” he said.
Los Alamos maintains a regularly-updated water plan, he said, “where we evaluate the needs for the next 40 years to make sure that we have an adequate plan and supply of water for growth and things that change around us.” That evaluation accounts for eventualities like drought and population growth and ensures “that we have enough water for high-use projections,” he added.
How high are the high-use projections? The 2006 Long-Range Water Supply Plan for Los Alamos County made its future water-need projections based upon an assumed population of 25,000 by 2020. (See image below.) The county may grow to 25k someday, but did not reach that benchmark by 2020, when the population peaked at 19,424. (See second image.)
According to these data, assuming that LANL continues its hiring projections, and the town’s master plans to increase density come to fruition, there will be enough water for the thousand or so expected new residents—and more, per the 2006 projections.
“The other item related to that is we have 12 active wells, and we’re putting a new one online,” said Alarid. “We have plenty of capacity in the wells to meet this new housing development.”
Per the long-range water plan, water in the aquifer that feeds those 12 wells is recharged through rainfall and snowmelt, but possibly at a slower rate than is being used. Any time more water is pumped from the wells than is recharged, this can be considered “water mining,” but the rate of drawdown matters. The water plan states that “Barring potential water-quality issues, continued pumping of the regional aquifer at the current rates is likely to be sustainable for hundreds of years.”
Alarid agrees. “We know we have a sustainable water supply because the drawdown of the water we’re pulling out, that drawdown on the water table, is pretty minimal,” he said. “That’s part of the 40-year water plan. We study that and we monitor that, so it’s a sustainable use. We’re not over-pumping our groundwater.”
Talk of groundwater wells naturally leads to another pressing issue: contamination from legacy waste. The reason the county is building another well is because one of the current groundwater wells is being threatened by a spreading plume of chromium. Chromium is a pollutant that was commonly used as a corrosion inhibitor, and while LANL stopped releasing chromium-contaminated water into Sandia Canyon (an area just south of East Jemez Rd) in 1972, what was released before then has slowly seeped toward one groundwater well.
“The plume has been identified within hundreds of feet from one existing well. Because of that and some of the uncertainty, we have not used that well for over a year, until we get a little more comfort level with LANL studying it,” said Alarid.
The county began planning, permitting, and drilling a new well in 2016, under the assumption that they would lose the endangered well. “We are going to be placing that new well online in we hope the next couple months, which will replace the production loss from that one,” said Alarid. “It takes many years to develop a well, so we got a head start and here we are 7-8 years later and we don’t know a whole lot more [about] the plume, so I think we did a good move there.”
Asked whether the new well, which is in the same geographic area, might itself end up in danger of contamination, Alarid said no. “When I say it’s in the same area, I mean regional area,” he said. “It will serve the same customers as the well we have offline, but it’s miles away from the plume, so we’re confident. We purposely selected the site well clear of any groundwater contamination that was known.”
(To view the county’s 2022 groundwater quality report, which shows levels of contaminants like chromium, lead, and arsenic, click here.)
The regional picture
When thinking about water supply and the future, it’s contextually important to look at the bigger picture of water use: who is using water in our arid region, and how are they using it? The majority of water use in the western states is for agriculture, not homes. In New Mexico, a whopping 80 percent of our water goes to agriculture, mostly for cattle feed. Our neighboring states are in a similar situation. According to one calculation from a University of Utah economist, “if Utah reallocated the water that’s used to grow hay for residential use, the state, which now has a population of 3.3 million, would, on paper, have enough water for 20 million people.” Furthermore, “If all residents stopped watering their lawns and yards, there would be enough water for 60 million people.”
Generally, residential water use is a small fraction of overall water use in the region. Compared to the enormous use of water in the agricultural, water, and gas sectors, the additional water
use of a few thousand new residents in mostly high-density housing in Los Alamos is an even smaller fraction. Because most LANL hires are within the state, and most other workers moving to Los Alamos are currently commuting from nearby cities, a slight population shift toward Los Alamos would be state-internal, and would move people from more water-stressed counties to one less stressed.
Thinking about utilities as a whole, Alarid feels confident the county can handle a population increase. “The work done over the last 20 years has prepared us,” he said. “There’ve been really thorough condition assessments and asset management planning with these lots that have always been identified for future development through the County Comprehensive Plan. And the owners and developers are actually proceeding to develop these, so we have prepared for it.”
The Barranca water tank, nearing the end of repair and repainting. Photo courtesy of DPU
About me: I’m a writer by trade and volunteer my time as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission of Los Alamos. Note that I do not speak for the Commission—the hat I wear here is that of a journalist. Have ideas for future articles? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Facts about Los Alamos water (a still-relevant 2014 piece written by former County Councilor Pete Sheehey):
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