T or C water/wastewater director responds to issues raised by the Sun in a rare public report to the city commission

by Kathleen Sloan | March 18, 2021
7 min read
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Water main breaks are “nobody’s fault”: First of a two-part series

Truth or Consequences Water and Wastewater Director Jesse Cole broke his silence at the city commission meeting on March 10 on various water issues raised by the Sierra County Sun in two recent articles.

Cole, who declined multiple requests from the Sun for interviews and information, spoke for nearly an hourat the meeting. He has not reported on the city’s water and wastewater repair and replacement plans, if they exist, in the 18 months the Sun has been covering the city beat.

Cole first addressed a cluster of water main breaks that occurred between Feb. 23 to Feb. 26. He explained changes in water pressure caused by pumps shutting down and starting up at too high a pressure creates the domino effect of one break after another. Isolating runs of pipes by shutting off valves also increases water volume and pressure, Cole said, contributing to clustered breaks.

Over the three days, five sites needed emergency repairs at the same time, Cole said, requiring workers to put in 35-hour shifts to fix the breaks.   

Cole and Acting City Manager Traci Alvarez said the Sun was incorrect in stating that water main breaks such as these had escalated over the last 14 months. Residents are now informed of breaks on the city’s Facebook page, they said, and more information is creating the perception there are more breaks.

Cole and Alvarez did not cite a source on which they based their claim that breaks have not escalated.

The Sun based its reporting to the contrary on the only documentation available, the aforementioned Facebook posts by Public Information Officer Erica Baker, the city’s deputy police chief. The Sun’s Inspection of Public Records Act request for data about water main breaks and water loss was returned with the response that “no such documents exist.”

The fact that the city is not documenting water-main break frequency, site location, pipe material and age means that valuable information is being lost, according to a comprehensive study, “Water Main Break Rates in the USA and Canada,” published in 2018 by Utah State University’s Buried Structure Laboratory.

“The most important and critical factor used to quantify the condition and occurrences of failing underground pipe networks is water main break rates,” asserted the study’s author, Steven Folkman, a USU professor at Utah State professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“Empirical data on water main breaks helps utilities in their repair and replacement decision making processes in order to deliver clean drinking water to their customers at an affordable price,” Folkman stated.

The study surveyed 308 water utilities, representing 13 percent of the U.S. and Canada’s water mains, which serve 52.5 million people or 14.5 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations. The same study, covering the same study area, was conducted by Folkman six years before.

If the frequency of T or C’s water line breaks is not increasing, it would be an outlier among U.S. and Canadian cities. Comparing the 2012 and 2018 data, Folkman found that water main breaks have increased from 11 breaks to 14 breaks per 100 miles of pipe per year, mostly due to aging cast iron and asbestos concrete pipes that should have been replaced.

“Many studies show that water rate breaks increase exponentially over time (Kleiner, 2002),” Folkman wrote. “Certain utilities could experience the need to accelerate the rate at which they are replacing cast iron and asbestos cement water mains. If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number of personnel repairing the breaks along with supplies, while loss of treated water increases, and societal impacts could be drastic.”  

Going by the city’s Facebook posts, water main breaks occurred in 38 locations in 14 months. Cole said the city has 80 miles of water pipes. Even taking into account Folkman’s finding that smaller cities have twice the breaks of large cities, the city’s informal information indicates local breakages are well above the norm.

Director Cole informed the city commissioners that the water main breaks are “nobody’s fault” and “nothing can be done.” He advised them that the cycle of breaks will continue to occur, because “you can’t drop 80 miles of pipe into the ground all at once.”

According to Folkman, water and wastewater departments should develop asset management plans that replace underground pipes before their life expectancy expires, or otherwise expect water losses and expensive emergency repairs. His studies give a wealth of information on pipe materials and their life expectancy, as well as soil corrosion factors to help communities choose better replacement pipes and create better replacement schedules to resolve the increasing problem of infrastructure neglect.

Losing water in any form is bad, but losing treated water is more costly, Folkman pointed out. Yet, like Truth or Consequences, many utilities do not track water loss due to water main breaks and cracked pipes. Many of the utilities surveyed only keep records on billed and unbilled water, which is T or C’s methodology.

During public comment at the March 10 meeting, activist Ron Fenn cited figures from the city’s monthly utility billing reports that gave some idea of the dimension of the city’s water losses. In January 2020, for example, the city billed for 18.9 million gallons, while also producing but not billing for 150 million gallons, Fenn stated. This is a ratio of 11.2 percent billed to 88.8 percent unbilled. In comparison, Fenn said, in January 2021, the city billed for 15.25 million gallons, while also producing but not billing for 22 million gallons. This is a ratio of 40 percent billed and 60 percent unbilled.

Folkman examined data from utilities that track water leaks and water losses, allowing him to estimate that a 10 percent water loss from leaks is average. T or C appears to be losing more than the average amount of water to leaks and cracks.

The 2019 update of T or C’s 2015 water system study reported the city was losing 40 percent of its water due to leaks. Director Cole and then City Manager Morris Madrid refuted that figure, without providing hard data to the contrary. Their refutations were made during town hall meetings last fall.

The meetings were held to determine how much water rates would need to be increased to enable the city to qualify for a combination grant/loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development branch for nearly $10 million. The funding will be used to replace downtown water lines and upgrade the Cook Street chlorination plant.

Although this project is still in the design phase, the city raised water rates about 50 percent last July, with further increases to be made yearly, based on the cost-of-living index and other factors.  

At the March 10 meeting, Acting City Director Alvarez handed out to the commissioners the first capital project report in 18 months, which included the city’s current water system projects. The one-page document was not made available to the public; the Sun obtained a copy from City Clerk Angela Torres later in the week.

A “Citywide water preliminary engineering report” has been completed at a cost of $99,000, Alvarez’s capital project report states. It has been submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department for comment. No details were provided about whether the engineering report includes a replacement and repair plan.

The city is presently undertaking eight water system projects, according to Alvarez’s update. City officials have never made clear what rationale or master planning is governing the priority and timing of the projects. What is known is that wastewater pipe replacement is not being considered alongside water line replacement. If wastewater improvements are subsequently undertaken after the waterline projects are completed, it is likely taxpayers will pay more than double the cost: double mobilization of equipment, double shipping and trucking of materials, double the engineering fees, double staff administration time, double the road tear up and repair. 

After dealing with the issue of waterline breaks, Director Cole addressed questions raised by the Sun about status of the city’s southern well field. His remarks will be covered in the second part of this series, to be posted tomorrow.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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