Under cover of darkness, someone broke into a well in Rio Communities Thursday night, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage and releasing thousands of gallons of water.
When an employee of New Mexico Water drove up to Well No. 5, located behind La Merced Elementary School, he noticed something was wrong. Ron Hay, director of field operations for New Mexico Water, said the employee was on his usual rounds to check the water wells that serve the residents of Rio Communities when he noticed that the lights at the building were out.
Upon further inspection of the small building, Hay discovered someone had deliberately caused major damage to several key components that make the well run.
“They did several things,” he said. “They opened the valves to a relief line causing water (about 2,000 gallons) to shoot out from the back of the well. They also opened up the control system panel and the chlorine disconnect panel and cut all the wires, which cut off all power to the well.”
Hay said whoever did this broke into the building by first prying the chain link fence gate open. They then pried off the vents on the steel doors to gain entry into the building.
“They also got into the chlorine room and opened up the valve to a chlorine gas cylinder and released it into the air,” Hay said. “The cylinder contained about 136 pounds of gas. To do what they did by loosening the regulator, they had to know the system. Another reason I believe they had to know what they were doing was because they used the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that we use just in case of a chlorine leak
“They had to have known to put on the breathing apparatus before releasing the gas into the air,” he said. “If not, they would have inhaled the gas, and it could have killed them.”
Other damage at the site included a broken skylight, two damaged vents on top of the roof and oil that is used to lubricate the well was found dumped on the floor.
Bob Davey, president of New Mexico Water, said this was not the first time someone has vandalized the water wells. He said that this was just the latest and worst in a series of break-ins at the water wells.
“We believe the people who got into the well last night are responsible for other vandalism we’ve had in the past,” Davey said. “In the past, we’ve been broken into and vandalized, but now they are stealing equipment and cutting wires. It’s not to the point where it’s becoming a daily occurrence, but they’ve been getting steadily worse.”
Although the well was shut off, Davey explained, the No. 2 well immediately went into backup mode, causing no disruption in service. He said the vandals caused about $6,000 worth of damage.
“This really bothers us,” Davey said. “We’re used to going out and finding general vandalism, but when they start messing with our water system is when we get really concerned. This is serious. It wasn’t an accidental attempt; this was deliberate.”
Because of the rash of vandalism, New Mexico Water is in the midst of putting in a state-of-the-art security system at all of its wells. Hay said all of the hardware has been installed, and they are waiting for the system to be connected.
“We’ve spent a lot of money to put this system at all our locations, including the wastewater treatment plants,” he said. “It just hasn’t been hooked up to the main computer. We’re also taking other precautions to deter people from doing damage to the wells.”
Hay said he plans to install bulletproof cameras, battery-operated sensor lights and will install solid metal doors at all New Mexico Water sites.
“I really do believe it’s someone who is familiar with our system,” Hay said. “They knew exactly what to do and where to go.”
Davey said New Mexico Water is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever is responsible for the damage at the well. If anyone has information about this case, call the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office at 866-2415.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.