Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For the past three weeks, those living in the village of Chama have had to boil their water or wait in line for the National Guard to distribute clean water, as equipment malfunctions in the Chama Water System have led to the potential growth of dangerous bacteria.
It’s the latest in a history of compliance issues having to do with the water system that serves around 1,000 residents near New Mexico’s border with Colorado.
The New Mexico Environment Department in April confirmed that the water system was required to issue an the advisory to boil water in response to high levels of turbidity in the water, which prevents disinfectants from killing bacteria that flow in from the Rio Chama. These dangerous bacteria have not been detected in the water, village officials said.
The system failure in Chama’s water plant could have devastating consequences for village government, residents and local businesses, village officials say.
Nicole Mangin and her company, MEC Tech Services, arrived in Chama just before the advisory began and have the tall order of getting the plant up and running again. She said the level of disrepair at Chama’s water plant has made the process incredibly difficult.
Documents detailing daily operations and a schedule of required maintenance were missing. Essential testing supplies were either buried in storage closets or nowhere to be found.
And the plant’s two huge filtering tanks weren’t functioning properly, producing only 36% of the water required.
Mangin, who has worked around water systems for 34 years, said she had never seen a plant in worse shape.
“The plant was in failure,” she said.
The primary malfunction came from the layers of sand and anthracite coal that filter all incoming water. When she arrived in Chama, Mangin found there was no anthracite coal and the layers of sand had mixed together, making them far less effective. She said this happens due to human error in maintaining water pressure.
She pointed to a huge tank of opaque brown water in the tank – noting that the water was supposed to be clear.
“The plant was not being operated the way it was designed,” she said.
And the lack of daily operating logs, which keep track of chemical changes and other adjustments to water treatment, means Mangin and her crew have greater difficulty in knowing how to fix the plant, she said. Eventually, both filter tanks will need to be replaced.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of consumable water has had a sizable impact on local residents.
On two occasions, some residents turned on their faucets to no avail – the plant had run out of water to supply the village.
“We can’t have that going on during a pandemic,” Mangin said.
The National Guard was called in to deliver clean water from systems in Tierra Amarilla and Dulce, both about a half-hour away. One tanker delivers water to residents, while another dumps 6,000 gallons into the Chama Water System to ensure water does not run out.
Niagara Bottling also delivered a tractor-trailer full of bottled water, since grocery stores have limited how much water shoppers can buy.
And the costs to the local economy are staggering.
Chama Mayor Billy Elbrock estimates restarting the plant will cost around $300,000.
“That’s a third of our budget,” he said.
The village is also facing economic hardship due to a drop in gross receipts taxes – which account for about half its total budget – since many businesses in the popular tourist destination have been forced to close due to the coronavirus.
Issues with the water supply have made it difficult for businesses such as coffee shops and car washes to operate even in a limited capacity.
“Something like this is almost devastating,” Elbrock said.
He said the village has applied for funding from the state and federal governments to pay for repairs. If that doesn’t work out, he said, he’ll have to deplete the village’s reserves and institute a spending freeze.
While the consequences of the plant’s failures are massive, the cause behind the malfunction – and who’s responsible – remains unclear. Mangin and Elbrock said a discovery process still needs to be performed to find out what went wrong.
Levi Sandoval operated the plant from 1997 until his resignation in February. He said there were no issues at the time.
“The plant was running in perfect order when I left,” he said in a Tuesday phone call.
Mangin said it is unlikely the plant would fail on such a large scale in the month after Sandoval resigned, although a timeline is hard to establish since so many documents were missing.
The village of Chama itself has had a history of water-related violations.
In the past decade, the Environment Department has found the village in violation 21 times, mostly for failing to report samples of dangerous substances in the water.
Sandoval said he resolved all complaints issued by the department. However, department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden wrote Tuesday that the village still has eight unresolved violations from 2017 and 2018 for failing to issue public notices of past violations.
A 2016 report by the New Mexico State Engineer’s Office found the village of Chama’s water system frequently struggled with “bacteria and other organisms in its surface water,” and cited turbidity as a common issue in the Rio Chama area.
Village officials, though, have largely kept their hands off the water plant over the years. Elbrock said he had heard previously of a couple of problems with the plant before it failed, but left it alone because the operator said there were no issues.
“In my 10 years with the village, there has not been much oversight (of the water plant),” he said. “We didn’t interfere – we let the operator do what needed to be done.”
Sandoval denied any responsibility for the plant’s failure.
Elbrock said he’s hopeful that repairs to the plant will be done by June 2.