Update by ERIC SHULTZ
Over beef tips and noodles at the community center last Thursday, Chupadero and Rio en Medio seniors reminisced about the cold snap of 1971. I have my memories, too: somehow the minus-20 degree air came down the exhaust flue and froze furnace pipes in the very core of our home. The cold snap of 2013 was less extreme, but a week of sub-zero lows with highs well below freezing took a toll.
A few days earlier, Ronald Jiménez had told me how he and his father Ray had struggled to get the Río en Medio mutual domestic water system back in service after everything froze at the well. When customers called to ask when the water would be back on, he had wanted to say “sooner if you come and help.” After service had been restored, one of the valley’s newer residents complained that it hadn’t. Ronald took a look and discovered that recent landscaping had left less than two feet of earth covering the homeowner’s supply pipe (in these parts, four feet is considered a safe depth). Finally convinced that the problem was his responsibility, the good neighbor took a back hoe and proceeded to rupture the main leaving everyone below him without water for a few additional days. If nothing else, Ronald is learning that good help is hard to find.
At the Monday (January 14) Chupadero water board meeting, Jack Miller’s water master’s report was replete with similar stories: a burst pipe had left an unoccupied house flooded, pipes and water meters had frozen at several other homes, and to top things off, the main had burst at their best-producing well, filling the eight-foot-deep well pit with water and ruining the electric control panels. Chupadero mayordomo David Roybal helped Jack replace the pipe, but when they called the well guys to replace the wiring they learned that Thompson Water Wells has gone out of business! Jack eventually reached George Williams of Advanced Drilling in Medenales who quickly got the well pumping again. At the meeting, association president Linda Miller asked Roybal how he wanted his payment for his part in the repairs. He asked her to credit it to the account of an ailing and indigent neighbor.
Since the Board of County Commissioners approved last fall to absorb the Chupadero mutual domestic into the county’s utilities division, some at the Monday meeting wondered if that decision implied County responsibility to help with the problems now. This led to more general expressions that lately the County seems to have forgotten about Chupadero altogether. I called and left a voicemail the following day and before the end of the week, the Santa Fe County Utilities Division Director called me back.
On the phone, Patricio Guerrerortiz, Pego for short, is a personable and forceful communicator. He stated emphatically that the County was still 100 percent committed to the Chupadero takeover, and attributed the apparent inaction to government’s inherent molasses-like quality (related effects of the cold snap went unmentioned). “Right now it’s in the hands of the attorneys,” he said in reference to a formal agreement to place the utility under County administration. But, he acknowledged, summer peak water use is fast approaching and he doesn’t want a repeat of last summer’s emergency (see La Jicarita’s report here).
Once the takeover is finalized, Guerrerortiz’s first priority will be to try to increase production from the existing wells to see if they “will work for another year.” Concurrently, he wants to upgrade the system’s water storage capacity from a tank he considers “too old, too small.” He says the money is already budgeted for these improvements, and “if I need money for a new well, I’ll find it.”
Where money is concerned, Guerrerortiz explained that expanding the Utilities Division’s customer base (i.e. increasing the number of rate payers) is important to offset costs that are tapping the general fund, but any hope of being self-sustaining, let alone a net source of revenue, is not in the foreseeable future. For one thing, the Buckman Direct Diversion (BDD) of water from the Rio Grande costs the County between 1.5 and 1.8 million dollars per year. One factor driving up BDD costs is that water treatment “needs to be state-of-the-art because it’s downstream from Los Alamos” and he assured me that no expense has been spared for water quality.
In short, the County’s water utility commitments involve considerable fixed costs, so the more customers there are, the better. Guerrerortiz seemed pleased to announce that the elite residential development Las Campanas has signed on as an institutional customer to the tune of $400,000 per year. At the other end of the residential spectrum, the State Penitentiary’s approximately 1000 inmates are calculated as equivalent to 200 ordinary customers: an example for us all in water conservation. In light of the utility’s overall function, 50 to 60 ratepayers from Chupadero will not eliminate the need to spend tax dollars but, according to Guerrerortiz, having more customers translates into the “best bang for the buck.”
While I had the director on the phone, I posed a question I’ve been hearing in the Chupadero community. Protective of their village life, locals fear that a County-run utility might facilitate development in adjacent areas. Guerrerortiz countered that the County has strict rules that developers have to follow with availability of water being only one factor. Besides, he went on, as a general rule jobs attract population and promote development more than water does. In a market thick with retirees and in an age of tele-commuting, nearby jobs would surely count for less, but I didn’t press the point. With a County-owned water utility, he added, area property values will go up though he hastened to assure me that this would not result in higher taxes for current owners. But higher tax rates for new owners would be another disincentive to rapid development.
From the start of our conversation, Guerrerortiz came across not just as a competent agent of modernity but as a man on a mission in the cause of water security. “Too many [rural water] systems depend on volunteers, on outdated infrastructure… it’s a time bomb.” And last summer the Chupadero time bomb exploded, or rather it imploded, but the result was the same. And although the County has yet to take any effective action, speaking for the Utilities Division, Director Guerrerortiz assured the Chupadero community: “We’re ready.” But ready or not, Jack and Linda Miller worry about the County’s pace of action. Commenting on a draft of this article, Linda suggested I add “a plea from the community for early help before summer drought conditions return.” If experience is any indication, such a plea from the community members and supporters to their elected officials might help to nudge the process forward.