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Thinking Big, Thinking Ahead, Acting Now – An Interview with Maggie Hart Stebbins

Nobody wants to raise rates but if the ratepayers understand what the challenges are, and what the new revenue is being used for they will support it.

Western water utilities know all too well the now famous phrase “stationarity is dead.” Planning for water security in the American West in the time of climate change requires getting ready for low probability, high-risk impact events.

But can that understanding spur smart actions today? Will it lead to investment in the headwater forests that are the source of most of our water supply?

In New Mexico it did. The Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Authority recently made a $1 million investment in the headwaters of northern New Mexico. Those funds will be pooled with the money raised by the Rio Grande Water Fund for forest restoration.

In this interview, Maggie Hart Stebbins explains how the utility got there, the critical need for collaborative leadership and their success communicating the challenges and solutions to their ratepayers.

Why did the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Authority decide to make a $1 million 5-year investment for watershed restoration upstream?

The Water Authority looked at all the different threats to our water supply as we put together the Authority’s 100-year water management strategy plan. It was clear that our surface water could be threatened by different wildfire events.

We had the perfect example a few years ago with the Las Conchas fire in 2011. As you know, after the wildfire came the flash flooding into the Middle Rio Grande. The fire ash that came down the river required us to shut down our surface water intake for a significant period of time. I think that was a wake-up call that we did have a stake in preserving the health of our watershed.

I’m intrigued by the Water Authority’s 100-year plan. None of the other western water utilities in our network have done such a long-horizon water management strategy. Why did you decide to do this plan?

It was an opportunity to really look long-term. A lot of local governments and organizations tend to think that 5 years or 10 years is a sufficient horizon. We looked at what’s going on in the context of climate change and in anticipating demand for water in New Mexico. We recognized that there would be a lot of benefit in looking really long-term. Because of demand and water supply challenges it’s really not unreasonable to think that far ahead. The plan is not, of course, set in stone. It’s clearly going change according to conditions.

What were your agency’s biggest challenges in getting approval for this investment in the watershed?

The biggest challenge was the unwillingness of some people in policymaking positions to look long-term. As elected officials we are always very sensitive to tax increases, spending that might be perceived as unnecessary, or frivolous. We have to look at every expense just through that lens. In asking our ratepayers to fund projects, we need a very solid foundation for proposing them as expenditures.
When you’re talking about protection of watershed that is something that may never come into play. It could be that if we did nothing there would not be a wildfire in the next hundred years that would impact our water supply. So, that’s the risk that someone at some point might say, “You know, this is not a wise expenditure.” Or “You know, this is something that is not a definite threat.” But we saw it as a significant enough threat that we needed to address it.

It’s what the climate scientists talk about – those low probability, high-risk impact, events.

Are there three key lessons for other water utilities, those looking at similar investments, that you’d could share?

An important lesson for me is that when our goal and strategies are well articulated, our ratepayers understand.

Nobody wants to raise rates but if the ratepayers understand what the challenges are, and what the new revenue is being used for they will support it.

So one key lesson is that you need to take your time and really articulate and communicate your goals and strategies. The communications piece is absolutely vital.

 Another lesson?

I have to speak to the leadership of Laura McCarthy and the Rio Grande Water Fund. This leadership was incredibly important as they were able to reach out to every local government, every business organization, and every entity in this community and explain the value of the watershed or the watershed protection plan.

What does it mean to the business community? What does it mean to our economy if we have these repeated fires and threats to our water supply? Having articulate, intelligent spokespeople advocate was incredibly important.

If there wasn’t a Rio Grande Water Fund, do you think the Water Authority would have gone ahead and made this investment?

I don’t think so. Laura and the Water Fund were key to putting the priorities and a plan together, then reaching out to the community for funding. I don’t think we would have done that on our own.

We see that in other parts of the West as well. Unless you’re a very wealthy water agency (far and few between), you have to have that kind of collaboration leadership whether it’s in the Upper Williamette or in Salt Lake or in Flagstaff. It’s the only way to move forward with watershed restoration that gets you the scale needed.

Our water authority staff is outstanding. But they all are focused on their individual responsibilities and we don’t really have anyone on board who has building community collaborative leadership as their core job.

Water Agency staff could have done this if they had been tasked with it, but this is just something that wasn’t really in our wheelhouse at the time. It took some leadership from the outside.

Any other lessons or key points that you think are important for other western water utilities to know?

The Healthy Headwaters convening that Carpe Diem West held in Albuquerque a few years ago certainly gave me a personal understanding and much better grasp of the challenges.

Some of our Water Agency staff were there as well and that made a huge difference because they have to buy into the agency’s new water strategy as well. We began building on the information and expertise you brought with this convening to New Mexico.

Maggie Hart Stebbins has served on the Bernalillo County Commission since May 2009, representing the District 3 neighborhoods she has called home for more than 50 years. In her seven and a half years on the commission, Commissioner Hart Stebbins has focused on ethics reform; expanding local economic opportunities through responsible job creation; feeding hungry children; improving access to mental health and substance use treatment services; supporting at-risk students and their families through the ABC Community School Partnership; protecting Bernalillo County’s great open spaces including the county’s first urban open space at the UNM North Golf Course; increasing the county minimum wage; and working to make sure men and women receive equal pay for equal work. As a member of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority Board, she is committed to protecting our precious groundwater resources. She led early efforts to remediate the Bulk Fuels Facility jet fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base and sponsored county policies to reduce nitrate contamination from leaking septic systems.


Photo Credit: PlanetWare


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