T or C still mum about problems with city’s water wells, despite only two of eight working properly

by Kathleen Sloan | May 25, 2021
6 min read
T or C's southern well field Aerial map courtesy of Google Earth with locator pins by Ron Fenn

Truth or Consequences officials have not been frank about the condition of the city’s sole well field, located in the southern end of town off South Broadway Street near the municipal waste transfer station.

A legal ad in the Sierra County Sentinel’s May 21 edition was the first public notice and acknowledgment that two more wells in the city’s eight-well field are in trouble. Four others are offline, raising questions about the city’s water delivery capacity and the water department’s transparency about the health of the well field.

The legal notice directed bidders to the city’s website to find a Request for Proposals document to bid on fixing the wells. The RFP, which asks for responses by July 21, describes the problems with the pumps in Well 6 and Well 7, which have never been revealed in a public meeting.  

The city commissioners and the public have only been apprised by Water and Wastewater Director Jesse Cole that Well 8 is offline.

A Sun investigation published in late February revealed that only three wells had, as of that time, been operational since June 2017. Cole subsequently gave a rare public report to the commission in March, assuring the commissioners that “all of our wells are safe and sanitary with 100 percent confidence.” He publicly dismissed the Sun’s reporting as “incredulous blogs.”

City Manager Bruce Swingle confirmed the thrust of the Sun’s reporting in alluding vaguely to the water well problems during the commission’s special budget meeting on May 5. His remark referenced costs to be incurred in the near future that were not included in the budget. Cole’s presentation on his department’s budget was void of any reference to well problems.  

Clues to the problems with Wells 6 and 7 are contained in the 46-page RFP seeking bids on their repair. It gives the following “background” information to potential bidders:

“Wells have been having issues with alignment of shaft, bearings, pumping.”

“Well #7 started leaking liquid with oil and metal filings from around the well seal while it is in operation [while the pump is working]. We have shut it down.”

“Well #6 is similar in that it is leaking some oil and water solution when running, with some intermittent shaft vibrations that occur. This well is also over-pumping its maximum gallons per minute. This is causing it to cavitate to some degree. [Cavitation refers to bubbles that form and pop, causing pressure changes that could damage pump parts]. This well is still in operation during daytime hours on manual operation.”

The work to be done on both wells is to disconnect and remove the well pump, to troubleshoot pump-motor problems and to assess the condition of the well casing.

The well casing is to be videoed before and after it is given an “acid wash,” with further instructions to “scrub, flush.” The well casing is then to be disinfected for 24 hours, flushed again, and tested for E. coli bacteria.

The Sun investigated the condition of city wells after Cole made an alarming statement during a Jan. 27 city commission meeting. In response to a question, Cole stated that his top priority capital project would be the construction of a new well in the northern part of town. When a city commissioner disagreed, stating that replacing antiquated water system pipes took priority, Cole responded with unusual candor. “If there is no water to put in water lines, there is no need to replace them,” he said.

The Sun’s investigation also revealed the city’s irregular and incomplete reporting on the condition of its water system, including its water wells.

The sole document posted on the city’s website under the water department tab is the 2019 “Consumer Confidence Report,” authored by Cole. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires water system operators to make public an annual CCR. There is no 2020 CCR on the T or C website.

The 2019 CCR states it is a “snapshot of last year’s water quality,” making it nearly three years out of date, since it details water conditions in 2018. Because of lack of timely written updates, it is critical that city officials speak to the press and public about current water issues. Cole has steadfastly refused to respond to the Sun’s requests for an interview.

In the 2019 CCR, Cole reported that there were “6 active wells.”

This claim is contradicted by the city’s “water production” documents from 2017 through 2020, obtained by the Sun via IPRA (Inspection of Public Records Act) requests. Wells 1, 2 and 6 have produced water consistently since 2017. The operation of Well 7 has been inconsistent.

New Mexico Environment Department engineer David Torres visited Truth or Consequences on March 31, according to NMED Drinking Water Bureau documents. Torres reported Wells 1, 2 and 6 were “active” and Wells 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 were “inactive.”

Documents about well examinations provided by the city contain additional details about the conditions of Wells 7 and 8.

Well 7 went offline temporarily in July 2017, when it was examined via video camera by Wells Surveys Company of Hereford, Texas. The examination found the water dark and cloudy at the upper and lower parts of the well.

Water production documents show that, after it was examined, Well 7 operated sporadically at a reduced capacity through 2019. The RFP—the most recent available information on Well 7—reveals that it has been shut down, but does not provide the date when it was taken offline. 

Well 8 has not operated since May 2017, according to water production documents. In his March 10, 2021, report to the city commissioners, Cole explained the nature of Well 8’s problems, divulging information that he had refused to provide before the Sun published its investigation.

“Well Number 8 that is in question has mechanical failure and case slippage,” Cole said, providing the following opaque elaboration. “This means that the casing of the pipe has either shifted or broken or is misaligned, not allowing the vertical turbine to properly rotate. At several points down the column shaft, you have bearings that hold this thing centered in the middle, so your pipe doesn’t start wobbling. And without proper alignment on your casing that can’t happen.”

Now, Well 6—the highest producing well in 2019, according to water production documents—is also in trouble.

In August 2019 Well 6 pumped 18.7 million gallons, compared to Well 1’s production of 14.2 million gallons and Well 2’s 9.4 million gallons. Well 6 is now pumping only during daylight hours, the RFP acknowledges. It must be operated manually, presumably to allow water department workers to turn the pump on and then off when it “cavitates.”

Despite Well 8’s having been offline since 2017; the unexplained shutdown of Wells 3, 4 and 5 some time before 2017; and new problems of unstated duration with Wells 6 and 7, Cole told the commissioners during his March 10 report that there is no risk that the southern well field will fail.

“My recommendation . . . to install a new well . . . has nothing to do with failing wells that we have existing or a failing well field, as has been implied [by the Sun]. . . . This [recommendation] is not in regards to our existing wells having issues.”

Cole went onto promise: “If they were not safe, the public would be made aware immediately.”

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.


Truth or Consequences’s water lines are breaking at an escalating pace
by Kathleen Sloan | March 9, 2021

Over the past 14 months, the average time between breaks has been about 22 days. In the last five weeks, the average time between breaks...

2 thoughts on “T or C still mum about problems with city’s water wells, despite only two of eight working properly”

  1. If Wells 6 and 7 are leaking “liquid” or water with oil and metal filings, it seems possible, if not likely, we are drinking the same. If a property with a well is sold, the condition of the well water is part of the seller’s disclosure to the buyer. If T or C water is suspect, either because recent consumer confidence reports were not made public or there are capacity or quality problems with the water the city provides, should these concerns be a part of all property disclosures for sales in the city going forward?

    It seems to me that fixing basic needs such as clean water, reliable electrical supply, effective stormwater handling and a transparent and aware city council should come before any consideration of “putting lipstick on a pig”-type projects such as the “Riverwalk.”

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