March 7, 2023

Bill to make it easier for rural water systems to regionalize passes House

A bill that would create a template for mutual domestic water utilities to join into regional water authorities passed the House of Representatives on a 46-22 vote Monday.

The Senate concurred with amendments the House of Representatives made to the bill on Wednesday. SB 1 now heads to the governor’s desk.

Currently, small rural water systems that want to join together to form a larger entity must seek individual legislation. An example of this would be the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority, which was created through legislation in 2009.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, and Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Mora, sponsored SB 1.

Herrera gave Dixon as an example of an area that could benefit from a regional water authority. Regional water authorities are created when two or more public water systems combine to form a new entity.

In Dixon, she said, there are about 500 households served by four mutual domestics.

“None of them have the economy of scale to really be a professional water system,” she said.

A mutual domestic water utility is a governmental entity that manages the drinking water system usually in a rural area. Decisions are made by an elected board of directors who live in the community served by the rural water system.

Herrera said these mutual domestics are often managed by volunteers from the community, many of whom are retired.

By joining together to create a regional water authority, the small, rural water systems can reach an economy of scale that will allow them to hire staff such as an executive director and a bookkeeper. 

While SB 1 creates the ability for the regional water authorities to form without needing legislation, it does not require regionalization. Herrera explained that the decision to regionalize will be a voluntary decision and no mutual domestic will be forced to join a regional authority.

There are two regional water authorities in New Mexico. The Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority has an elected board while the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority also has a governing board that includes elected officials like county commissioners and the mayor of Albuquerque.

One of the concerns expressed by opponents included language in SB 1 that would allow the water authority to assess a fee for the privilege to connect to the water lines in the future if a property line is within 300 feet of water lines. Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, had concerns that these fees would be forced on property owners who have domestic wells and do not intend to connect to the water system in the future.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the Senate has concurred with amendments to the bill.