Chama’s back in the flow of things

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In late April, the New Mexico Environment Department informed Chama residents they would have to boil all of their water because it was highly turbid.

Chama takes water from the Rio Chama to supply residents. The village’s water plant recently underwent major repairs after years of neglect. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

For the next two months, locals would have to conserve as much water as possible as a team of village officials and water engineers raced to reboot a water system suffering from years of neglect.

Finally, on June 20, the boil-water advisory was lifted.

“The plant is producing excellent water,” Mayor Billy Elbrock said in a phone interview. “Probably the best quality water this village has seen in the last five or six or seven years.”

Residents and business owners said they are pleased with how the cleanup of the water system was handled.

Interim operator Niki Mangin gave regular updates via Facebook on the status of the water plant repairs. On one occasion, she shared photographs of huge piles of septic sludge that had built up in the plant due to lack of maintenance.

“Before anyone gets angry, you haven’t even SEEN angry to what I expressed on behalf of the people of this Village to these contractors,” Mangin said in the Facebook post. “I think I made one guy cry.”

Elbrock said he was shocked by how badly the plant had been neglected. He had previously said village officials rarely oversaw the plant in past years.

“That was just shocking, mouth-dropping,” he said. “All because of a lack of maintenance.”

Over the course of five days, the plant stopped producing water as crews replaced the two large filter tanks in the plant. Residents were encouraged to conserve water.

The National Guard had to fill water tanks in Dulce and Tierra Amarilla to supply residents in Chama with enough clean water. The rehabilitated water plant is now up and running. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The village has also increased oversight, which village officials said was virtually nonexistent before the advisory. This included making sure the state Drinking Water Bureau had the city’s correct address, which Elbrock said had been lacking.

But while the problem with Chama’s water has been resolved for now, the two-month fix took its toll on local residents and businesses, and many of them still face an uncertain future.

When the advisory was first issued, many businesses – especially restaurants – opted to shut down operations as they had little capability to filter the water themselves.

Even businesses that had high-quality water filters faced some difficulty. Alayna Alariana, who opened Rio Chama Espresso less than a year ago, said her high-powered filters quickly wore out after working through thousands of gallons of village water.

“My filters that should have lasted two years lasted two months,” she said, adding new filters cost her around $2,200.

Water pressure was also significantly affected, as the National Guard had to replace much of the village’s supply lost by the malfunctioning water plant.

For Alariana, that reduction in pressure can cause serious damage to her expensive coffee and espresso machines. She calls one machine her “sports car,” because she had to sell her sports car to afford it.

“You can hear my machines cavitate trying to pull in water that’s not there,” she said. “It’s not healthy for these machines.”

This was not the first time Chama’s had issues with its water supply, but the timing made this occasion especially difficult on the local population.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure or reduced services of thousands of businesses and events across New Mexico, including Chama.

The Village Council decided to cancel Chama Days, a longtime popular event of rodeos and parades over the course of three days, which attracts visitors from across the region.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, the economic engine of the village, also shut down operations. Normally, 43,000 tourists ride the railroad each year, and they are the main customers for many local businesses. News about the village’s water quality didn’t help.

“It was a double whammy,” said local resident Joann Brown. “People would come to town, they couldn’t even get a glass of water in the restaurants that were open.”

The same held true for Ray Storment, who owns the Little Creel RV Park on the edge of town. He said water was one reason visitors canceled their reservations at his park.

“The water was one issue,” Storment said. “The train not running was another issue. Coronavirus was the third issue.”

The combination of problems has left many Chama businesses in a difficult position. Alariana’s staff is currently running at half capacity due to the decrease in demand.

“I just want everyone to make it,” Alariana said. “I’m really concerned about our little town.”

And the village government also faces significant financial issues as a result of the pandemic and the water situation. Elbrock estimates the village spent $500,000 – an amount equal to 55% of its total budget – rehabilitating the water plant, mainly relying on savings to pay the expenses.

Now, having depleted the city’s savings, Elbrock said a long road to financial recovery lies ahead.

“It’ll mean that our budget’s gonna be tight for a few years until we can build that fund back up,” he said. “We’re so maxed out on our debt ceiling right now that we didn’t really want to get a loan.”

Elbrock said the village will apply for a piece of the $150 million in aid for local governments approved by the state Legislature, although it’s unclear if Chama qualifies.

In the meantime, the village will strive for a new goal as it attempts to move on from the water controversy.

“We’re going to win the best drinking water in New Mexico,” Elbrock said.

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