BELEN — Billions of gallons of city water have been unaccounted for years, and city officials are ramping up their efforts to solve the mystery.

Belen City Manager Andrew Salas says the amount of non-revenue water the city of Belen has experienced over the years is a big problem.

“We have a certain amount of water we know we’re pumping out of the ground, and we have a certain amount of water we’re billing (for),” Salas said. “It’s very expensive to pump the water, it’s very expensive to maintain the lines and it’s very expensive to maintain the tanks — there’s a lot of expense.”

Salas said the city is not being accountable for the water loss and it’s not fair for those who are paying their bills. The city has a certain amount of water rights that are allocated by the state engineer — enough for the city’s use.

Since the early 2000s, the city began to realize it wasn’t getting full credit for the water it was pumping. Over the course of time, the city has tried to address the problem, Salas said, but to date, it hasn’t been solved.

There has been a lot of speculation as to where the water has been going.

“Is it because of leaks or are we not billing people who are using it or are we just not accounting for it,” Salas said. “To handle the issue of accountability, the city expended a lot of money for new meters. In 2018, everybody was outfitted with new meters but it turned out that the same rate of loss was noted through the new meters as before.”

The city manager said he doesn’t believe faulty meters is the problem, although there might be some people who don’t have meters but are still able to use city water.

As the city continued to search for the cause, they suspect something different because they know how much water isn’t being accounted for.

Salas said about eight million gallons of water is not being accounted for during the winter months, but come March and into the summer months the loss becomes greater — upwards of 17 million of gallons of water per month not being accounted for.

“That tends to imply that perhaps some of this water is being used for irrigating or watering, but we don’t know,” Salas said. “It’s just a theory right now.”

Salas explained the water is pumped into the city wells for use. There are two different places — what the meters are showing and the wastewater outflow — that tell the city how the water is used.

It’s unclear how much revenue the city has lost from not billing for the water loss, but Salas said it’s historically been a 38 percent loss. The state engineer has told them the standard rate of loss is 10 percent for municipalities.

“We’re going to be working with Mozlen Corbin to install a new metering system to measure what comes in and what goes out,” the city manager said.

The city has recently hired a professional consulting firm, Resource Wise, who have the expertise to investigate the water loss in Belen.

Salas said Resource Wise will go through a check list of all potential sources of water loss, whether it’s actual or accounting. Salas said they’ll look at the city’s meters and the software, as well as use a variety of technology to investigate.

“They have means to check where the water is going; they can use all kinds of things, such as drones to look at lush areas that are questionable,” he said. “They have listening capabilities to hear where the water is going — they have a lot of technology.”

Salas said he and the governing body realize they have to be good stewards of the city’s water and resources, but they also have a responsibility to the people who pay the bills. He says those who are paying shouldn’t be footing the bill for those who are using water illegally.

“As the drought continues and water become a more valuable commodity as the population increases, (the state engineer) is putting more attention on this,” Salas said. “There are likely repercussions for having a high non-revenue water loss, such as with the state water board and other entities who could offer grants or loans for upgrading water systems.”

Salas said Resource Wise’s 90-day study began this week.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, as well as the executive editor of El Defensor Chieftain, the News-Bulletin's sister paper in Socorro.
Clara is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.