Chupadero Water Emergency: Enter the County

The Chupadero mutual domestic’s 20,000 gallon storage tank, by the road to Rio en Medio.

Update and photos by ERIC SHULTZ

In June, La Jicarita reported on the village of Chupadero’s double water emergency: a trickling acequia and wells that failed to supply the mutual domestic water system. At a mid-July meeting, water association members voted to pursue a Santa Fe County takeover. I attended the Monday (August 13) association board meeting and prepared this update.

The blue dot near the base indicates a full tank.

First of all, the early summer crisis seems to have eased. After weeks of collectively accepted restrictions, the mutual domestic’s wells are supplying the community and keeping the storage tank full. Next to the community wells, the mayordomo of the Chupadero acequias, David Roybal, has maintained an ancestral hand-dug well. Last year and for most of this year it was a dry hole. Now it has some eight feet of water scarcely 20 feet from the surface. If nothing else, this shows how wildly the water table fluctuates in the Chupadero valley. But after the very recent scare, such momentary improvements hardly provide the sense of water security residents hope to gain from a County takeover.

Part of Monday’s meeting dealt with the usual business of running a small utility, to wit, collecting from members in arrears and deciding when to turn what one neighbor from south of here, whose English is coming along quite well, really, insists on calling the “shut up” valve. Deliberating about the size of a partial payment acceptable for a certain household to maintain service, it was clear that the board, while aware of economic conditions in its community, takes its administrative responsibilities seriously. Numerous points of discussion came back to a central theme: how to keep the mutual domestic running in good order during the transition to County ownership.

Linda and Jack Miller tendered their resignations as association president and water master last June, making the need for changes in the association real and immediate. At Monday’s meeting, board member Waldo Duran eloquently moved for Linda to stay on as president pro tem, as her experience and knowledge would be invaluable during the transition, and she accepted. Jack, too, is continuing on a temporary basis. Both have given time and absorbed expenses that make the stipends they received laughable. The board will explore ways to employ them as contractors at market rates as a token of appreciation for their extended and selfless service to the community.

Regarding the takeover itself, several things have to happen. The mutual domestic has to deed its wells and tank to the County. Then the County staff can begin its due diligence in assessing the condition of the system. As those present at the meeting understood it, the final step would be for the Board of County Commissioner (BCC) to make an “acquisitions policy decision” that would include acquiring Chupadero’s water system. Word is that consideration is tentatively scheduled for the BCC’s August 28 meeting. Chupadero board members have been dealing directly with the County’s utilities division director, Patricio “Pego” Guerrerortiz, and have nothing but positive things to say about those interactions. But voices of caution noted that at the BCC meeting, Guerrerortiz would be presenting staff recommendations and not representing Chupadero directly. All agreed to make any necessary effort to get community members to attend the BCC meeting.

         On several occasions, board members mentioned the County’s eagerness to take over Chupadero’s system. On the one hand, it’s simple economics. As Waldo explained, at its published rates, the County’s water utility will need the equivalent of 5000 residential rate payers to operate in the black: today it has around 3500, hence its eagerness to grow that number. Chupadero will add between 50 and 60 rate payers. The Chupadero board contacted neighboring Rio en Medio’s mutual domestic to communicate the County’s readiness to take over rural water systems, and drew an interesting response: water-secure Rio en Medio isn’t interested.

When board members first arrived at the community center on Monday, the meeting room was hot and stuffy, so we propped open front and back doors to let a breeze through. When the meeting was well underway, there was a brief suspension of business to appreciate the rain smell that had wafted in. But the smell was all we got.

As the meeting drew to a close, discussion turned to the previous meeting when the members had voted to let the County take over. It was recalled that one participant seemed impatient with member discussions, as if wanting to railroad the decision through: real estate developer Joel McCrea. Will the County water utility be willing to extend service beyond the mutual domestic’s traditional area and thus facilitate expanding development? This afterthought filled the room with something emotionally quite different from the smell of rain.

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