T or C water department director mum on possibly major problems with city’s well field

by Kathleen Sloan | February 25, 2021
8 min read
T or C's waste transfer station, whose location near the southern well field was vigorously protested as a potential threat to the city's water supply to no avail, relies on a French drain to funnel wastewater runoff away from the building. Its presence documented during the station's construction, the drain has since been covered with dirt. Photograph by Ron Fenn

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.”

T or C’s southern well field showing location of eight wells (marked with yellow pins) and the waste tranfer station (marked with a red pin). Map courtesy of Google Earth with location indicators by Ron Fenn

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

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.

6 thoughts on “T or C water department director mum on possibly major problems with city’s well field”

  1. My Russian grandfather used to tell an old parable where, due to people not being responsible about caring about farmland and water, in the time of drought the devil would sell a drink of water at the price of a person’s soul. Looks like some souls have already been bought.

  2. Once again the residents and visitors to Truth or Consequences are falling victim to an irrational, nonsensical management decision’s collateral damage. From the 25-plus year failure to seriously act on replacing the condemned landfills of both the county and city, to the politically motivated siting of the “solution” trash transfer plant in the middle of our only well field, we have been poorly served by government officials, local and state alike. The many alternate locations for the transfer plant that were rejected on less than compelling arguments, or no arguments at all, would not have endangered our vital water supply, and saved considerable money in the process. Now, we and future residents (if any) will have to deal with the consequences and that’s the truth.

  3. Biofouling in wells is caused by bacteria that live in the groundwater, and is not related to surface contamination. This mineral buildup blocks the well, and may lead to corrosion of the well lining, bad odors or taste, but is not considered harmful to people. It happens all the time, especially in places where the water has a high mineral content, and there are conventional methods for cleaning the well. See: https://www.water-research.net/index.php/water-testing/private-well-testing/well-biofouling

    The NMED Source Water Assessment Profile for T or C states that “the utility is well maintained and operated, and the sources of drinking water are generally protected from potential sources of contamination based on well construction, hydrogeologic settings and system operations and management.” Much ado about nothing, as Shakespeare would say.

    1. The article to which Mr. Szigeti points to prove his assertion that biofouling is nothing about which we need to be concerned says in the very first paragraph: “Biofouling is one of the five major causes for decreasing well yields and the development of poor well water quality.” Mr. Szigeti ignores altogether the fact, cited in our story, that the city did try to clean up Well 8, paying $90,000 to remediate its biofouling and to install a new pump, to no avail. Well 8 and Well 7 have had to be taken out of service. Why?

      Furthermore, having made no on-site inspections of T or C’s well field since 2016 (another fact documented in the Sun’s story), NMED is in no position to vouch for the quality of the town’s water supply. The lack of NMED monitoring of T or C’s well field is another red flag that Mr. Szigeti wants us to ignore.

      Finally, if the southern well field is indeed “well maintained and operated,” why did our water department advocate last month for the building of a new northside well to provide “redundancy” at a cost of, at minimum, $1.8 million? How can one simply brush off the department director’s remark explaining why a new well was a greater priority than new water lines: “If there is no water to put in water lines, there is no need to replace them.” Especially when the director refuses to elaborate or clarify.

      The Sun stands by the “ado” raised by our investigation and calls upon the city and NMED to immediately conduct rigorous, comprehensive testing of the only three working wells in the southern field to determine whether they, too, have been contaminated.

  4. A simple map and key would be helpful to locate these different locations, and their interactions. Maybe in the next article?

    1. Editor, Sierra County Sun

      You’re right, Ike. The Sun has such a map, which was used to illustrate an earlier story about the well field. It has now been added to this story.

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