Last month, at a Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting, Water and Wastewater Director Jesse Cole made alarming statements about the city’s only well field, located in the southern part of town. In case it were to fail, he said, the city would urgently need to have “redundancy,” meaning a new well in the northern part of town.
Cole’s remarks came during a Jan. 27 discussion of priorities for this year’s Community Development Block Grant request. When a city commissioner suggested that replacing water pipes was more urgent than a new well, Cole said, “If there is no water to put in water lines, there is no need to replace them.”
Since Cole dropped that bombshell, the Sun has contacted him twice for explanations, but he has not responded. The Sun also requested but did not receive engineering reports, if they exist, that indicate the southern well field is failing and the north end of town is the best location for a new well.
City documents on water production in the southern well field show that only three of the field’s eight wells have been operating since June 2017, giving weight to Cole’s prediction: “if the well field fails.”
The eight wells are located near the city’s solid waste transfer station, Well 8 being the closest. The transfer station was built in 2012-13, with no pipes leading into the sewer system, one French drain funneling the wastewater runoff into the ground and the surrounding raw dirt left to absorb any remaining runoff. T or C residents protested the project in large part because of its potential to taint the well field.
Well 8 is the newest well in the southern field. Documents from the Office of the State Engineer show it was completed in 1998. Drilled to 600 feet with a 12-inch well casing, it is permitted to pump up to 350 acre-feet a year. Pumping in the entire well field is not to exceed 2,571 acre-feet a year.
City documents show citywide water use is well below the OSE limit. T or C consumed nearly 1,300 acre-feet in 2016 and nearly 1,400 acre-feet in 2019.
“MASSIVE BIOFOULING” OF WELL 8
According to New Mexico Environment Department Drinking Water Bureau documents, the city is required to “regularly” test the well water and other sites for various contaminants. The Sun’s questions about the required frequency of the testing went unanswered by press time.
It was probably state water testing requirements that led to the city’s ordering a video survey report of Well 8, which was completed May 3, 2017, by Alpha Southwest of El Paso. “There is massive biofouling,” the company reported. “Recommend treat with peroxide water [solvent] blend. Brush with twisted cable brush.”
City Commission meeting minutes for Oct. 24, 2018, show the city commission awarded a bid to rehabilitate Well 8 to Hydro Geological Services of Albuquerque for about $90,000. The Sun submitted an Inspection of Public Records Act request for the bid document, which provides that the company would brush the “build-up” away, treat the well with acid, remove the acid and dissolved minerals and contaminated water, chlorinate the well, video the well casing and re-chlorinate the well for about $48,000. A new pump would be put in for about $42,000.
The Sun submitted an Inspection of Public Records Act request for documents explaining why the supposedly rehabilitated well has not operated since 2017, to which the city responded: “No such documents exist.”
Well 7 was also examined by camera by Well Surveys Company of Hereford, Texas, on July 10, 2017, according to city documents. The company’s report states the water was “cloudy” down to 252 feet, “hazy” at 365 feet, “murky” at 515 feet and “black” at 559 feet. Well 7 was also taken out of operation after the examination, as shown by city water production reports.
STATE OVERSIGHT IS SLIGHT
The Sun asked the Office of the State Engineer and the New Mexico Environment Department to explain the oversight they exercised over the city’s wells.
“We don’t do regular well inspections,” said John Romero, OSE’s director of water resource allocation and director of water rights. In a Feb. 22 phone interview, Romero also said the OSE has no restrictions against wells being located near a solid waste transfer station. The OSE was unaware that five of the city’s eight wells were not operating.
Maddy Hayden, NMED public information officer, said in a Feb. 11 email the department was unaware Well 8 was contaminated. “The city did notify us that this well was temporarily taken out of service in 2017 for an inspection,” Hayden stated. “Water systems must notify us of major modifications to wells or other drinking water infrastructure. Typically, inspections and rehabilitations do not require notification.”
Hayden said NMED periodically performs water-quality monitoring of drinking water sources, adding: “There were no deficiencies noted for Well 8 during the most recent sanitary survey NMED conducted in 2017.”
The monitoring tests show NMED took five samples from Well 8 over the last 22 years. The last sample—dated May 12, 2016, not 2017, as Hayden stated—was taken to test for coliform bacteria. The test results are not given, indicating the sample was never submitted to a lab.
Hayden stated the Drinking Water Bureau does not oversee dangers posed by a well’s proximity to sources of pollution. That responsibility resides in the Solid Waste Bureau, also a NMED division. In the case of T or C’s waste transfer station, the “Solid Waste Bureau did approve the location of the collection station through the registration process,” Hayden confirmed.
The Sun asked Hayden whether the SWB required the city to place a monitoring well near the transfer station to safeguard the southern well field by detecting a biofouling plume, should it occur.
“No,” Hayden responded, “Neither Solid Waste rules nor Drinking Water regulations require groundwater monitoring at collection centers.”
CITY DRINKING WATER VIOLATIONS
NMED relies on cities’ self-reporting to monitor safe drinking water practices. The city does not appear to have a good reporting record. Online documents on the DWB section of the NMED website show six violations of Drinking Water rules in the last five years:
• March 2020, the city was cited with a “major” infraction of the routine monitoring requirement for chlorine levels.
• February 2018, the city violated the “public notice rule linked to violation,” but the Sun could not ascertain the nature of the violation that should have been reported to the public.
• February 2017, the city violated the “lead and copper rule,” apparently exceeding the allowed thresholds.
• December 2016, the city was cited a second time for not publishing its yearly “consumer confidence report.” The city may have violated that rule again since then. The last consumer confidence report on the city’s website is dated 2019.
• November 2016, the city was cited with a “minor” infraction of the routine monitoring requirement for E. coli bacteria.
• August 2016, the city failed to publish a “consumer confidence report.”
Online NMED-DWB documents show that 27 “enforcement” actions have been taken against T or C in the last five years. These included eight acknowledgements of the city’s achieving “state compliance,” a figure that does not match the six violations recorded for the same time period. In addition, there were six “state public notification requirements,” and six matching “state public notifications received,” but the city was sent seven “reminder notices of violations” before it supplied the required data.
By comparison, Tucumcari, a city about the same size as T or C, had three violations and eight enforcement actions over the last five years documented on the NMED website. Unlike T or C’s situation, there was a match between the three violations and the three enforcement acknowledgements that state compliance was achieved.
SELF-REPORTING NOT WORKING
NMED records show NMED’s last on-site visit to T or C was 2016, demonstrating it primarily monitors from afar and relies on the city’s self-reporting to assess water quality. The city’s self-reporting is inadequate. Neither the biofouling of Well 8 nor the cloudy-to-black water in Well 7 was reported to NMED. NMED records also show that Well 7 is still active, although it is not.
City reporting to local stakeholders is also inadequate. Water Department Director Cole has never reported to the city commission or to the public on the status of the city’s southern well field or on the problems that have required Well 8 and Well 7, in particular, to be taken out of operation. He has not divulged publicly or to the press whether he has investigated the cause of those wells’ biofouling and murky water or determined whether proximity to the transfer station is the culprit or whether the remaining three wells are also in danger of contamination.
The city commission seems indifferent to the adequacy and condition of city’s water supply. No commissioner remarked on Cole’s alarming statements at the Jan. 27 meeting, and no item regarding the southern well field’s status or the need for a new well has been placed on the agenda of the commission’s subsequent two meetings.
The list of possible Community Development Block Grant projects presented to the commission at the Jan. 27 meeting estimated the cost of building a new well on the northside of town at $1.8 million. The price was far beyond the grant’s $750,000 cap, and the project was dismissed. The cost estimate may not include the miles of lines that would be required to pipe water from the new well to the city’s sole chlorination plant on the south side of town on Cook Street.
With only three wells still functioning in the southern well field, a new well might seem to most T or C residents to be a prudent investment, whatever its cost.
UPDATE: The southern well field map was added at the suggestion of a reader on March 11, 2021.