LOS CHAVEZ — It’s a water well nobody wants to be responsible for and it seems to have taken its last gasp, leaving dozens of Valencia County families without running water.
Out on Agua Fria Road in Los Chavez, there hasn’t been water, let alone cold water, for more than two weeks. The community well that sits on an acre to the north of Wayne Trujillo’s house and serves about 30 households hasn’t run since Sept. 23.
In addition to being out of commission, the well’s arsenic levels are higher than EPA standards and have been for years. According to EPA Region 6 inspection reports, the arsenic levels for the Loma Escondida Water Association well have been out of compliance since at least 2010.
The 250-foot well was drilled in 2000, just before the EPA arsenic standards for drinking water changed from an allowable 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb or .01 mg/l. Reports indicate the Loma Escondida well is at 0.018 mg/l.
Trujillo said he and his family never drank the water but the well has been problematic since the beginning.
“I wasn’t really told much. I just knew it was a community well. It was 40 bucks a month at the time,” Trujillo said. “I would say within six months, somebody actually came to my house and said they needed to put arsenic filters on.”
He said the idea of arsenic in the water wasn’t particularly alarming as a long-time New Mexican.
“If you’ve lived in New Mexico long enough, you know it’s naturally occurring,” he said. “I thought the filter would be fine but we haven’t been able to drink the water for about 10 years.”
The filters were never installed at his house, Trujillo said.
While the issue of drinking water can be addressed with bottled water, the lack of regular maintenance on the well led to more and more frequent outages, said Trujillo and his neighbor Ricardo Carrasco.
“The only way to get it back in service now is a complete revamp,” Carrasco said.
When he moved into the small subdivision about 15 years ago, Carrasco said he was told to talk to a man by the name of Tom Jourdon to get hooked up to the water system.
“At that point, he just turned it on. Nobody say anything about a fee,” Carrasco said. “About three years later, somebody came around saying they were trying to get everybody squared away and the well maintained, and we started getting bills in the mail for $40 a month.”
That seemed like a reasonable charge for the amount of water he was using, Carrasco said.
But then residents started getting reports about the arsenic levels.
It was less than a year after the well was put in that the EPA announced the new standard for arsenic in drinking water. The announcement came in January 2001 and water systems, even small ones like Loma Escondida, had until January 2006 to come into compliance.
Some time in 2014, Trujillo said the owner of the well property, Albuquerque realtor James Sahd, asked John DaCamara, owner and operator of Z-Management in Albuquerque, to maintain and operate the water system.
“So this John guy came in and bumped the payments up to $80 a month and said, ‘We’re going to come in here and we’re going to fix this well, supply you guys with good water,’” Trujillo recalled.
Carrasco said he had similar conversations with DaCamara about the well.
“He comes by and starts testing things, saying he’s going to cut people’s water off if they don’t pay,” Carrasco said. “I told him after the last company went defunct, there was nobody to pay but I’m willing to pay again, just tell me how.”
Carrasco said DaCamara wanted $600 in back payments from him, which he was able to make.
“He said he’d taken over the well. The original plan for this area was whoever had the well would pay for the roads to be maintained,” he said. “I thought if someone was going to start fixing roads and get the well up and running so we’re not getting these notifications from the EPA, that was worth $80 a month.”
Carrasco and Trujillo began paying the new monthly rate but it was about that time the well started to break down more frequently.
“We’d be out of water for a day or two and it was increasing in frequency,” Carrasco said. “About six months ago, John stopped cashing the checks. When we got a hold of him and told him there was a problem with the well, he said he wasn’t doing that anymore, he was walking away from it.”
The News-Bulletin reached out to DaCamara, who is listed on the EPA inspection reports as the facility manager for the Loma Escondida Water Association. The voice mailbox for the number was full and DaCamara did not respond to text messages, and emails to the address provided on the reports were returned as undeliverable.
Trujillo and Carrasco then turned to Sahd, the property owner and a realtor, who also says it’s not his problem.
During a telephone interview on Monday, Sahd said while he owns the property, he really shouldn’t — it should technically belong to the Loma Escondida Water Association and its members.
The area served by the well was developed by a company called Mesa Verde Development but, like many developers, didn’t see the project through to completion. Sahd said he bought the final 19 mobile home lots in the small subdivision, and the property with the well was “tacked on at the end.
“All the lots in there are entitled to tie into the well system and as I sold them. I told them they could tie into the system,” Sahd said. “The property owners own the well system. I’m the owner of the lot the well sits on but there are easements in place to go work on the well at any point.”
He says at some point an Albuquerque lawyer by the name of Jon McCormick became involved in the development at the request of Mesa Verde.
“McCormick was running the show; everyone was making payments to him, including me since I still owned some of the lots,” Sahd said. “When the arsenic level changed, he tries to put the whole well system onto me. Put my name as water board president, and I don’t want anything to do with it.”
According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s corporations website, Loma Escondida Water Cooperative Association was formed in August 2009 and is active but not in good standing. Sahd is listed as the president, with Robert Wilmesherr as vice president and Rebeca Masters as secretary and treasurer. Other directors include Lori Raitch and Harry Zeigher Jr.
Sahd said he was “feeling sorry for people” because the well needed to be maintained. He contacted DaCamara to run the system, but ultimately only a few people paid the monthly fees to DaCamara, Sahd said.
“He kept putting money in. He said he abandoned it cause they quit paying. So he left it behind and since then, everybody’s calling me,” the realtor said. “I don’t know how to run the well. I don’t know what to do. I can’t help them. They need to come together and do it. I don’t want the property; I’m not paying taxes on it.”
According to records from the Valencia County Treasurer’s website, the last time property taxes were paid on the well acreage was in 2013. The tax bill goes to NORCO Inc. at a post office box in Corrales, and there is an outstanding balance of $4,194 owed.
NORCO, Inc. was incorporated in 1978 by Carolyn A. Norton and Richard E. Norton, and according to the SOS corporations website, the company has a status of “revoked final” and is not in good standing.
Trujillo said most people living in the neighborhood didn’t have enough land to drill their own well — the New Mexico Environment Department requires three-quarters of an acre in order to have a household well on the same property as a septic system.
“And most people can’t afford it,” he said. “As a community, we don’t have the $20,000 it’s going to take to fix this well. A lot of people stopped paying for it because it was no good to drink. The EPA says you can’t charge for water unless it’s up to standards.”
Carrasco said he’s sent emails about the well to the governor, the county commissioner for the area, Charles Eaton, as well to state and federal senators and representatives.
“The only person who’s been out here has been the mayor of Belen,” he said. “Jerah Cordova came down Sunday last (Sept. 26) stood out in my front yard and talked to me about the situation.”
Administrative orders from the EPA for the well have been sent to McCormick and Sahd at Albuquerque mailing addresses. In a 2014 order, McCormick was given 18 months to correct the arsenic level and a similar order was sent to Sahd and DaCamara in 2015.
In March 2016, a letter to Sahd from the EPA Region 6 office noted he had no “adequate, formal compliance plan” to address the ongoing arsenic violations, and could be subject to an administrative civil penalty of up to $32,500, or a civil penalty of not more than $37,500 per day, per violation.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.