A month without water in Questa

At the first anniversary, looking back at a crisis

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Danny Garcia wasn't bothered by the freezing cold. It didn't bother him that it was late at night and early in the morning when he had to schlep outside of his home, meet up with a couple other volunteers and go read water meters or walk stretches of the distribution lines. Those were the only hours the village of Questa was still enough to do his work.

During the last weeks of December and the first weeks of January, Garcia helped Questa's officials and employees troubleshoot the deceptively complex problems that led to the water crisis, an outage that left most of the village's residents without running water for over a month during last year's Christmas season.

Without water, the schools didn't bus kids in, businesses closed and even the library shut its doors for a week.

When Garcia - the president of a local acequia association and a retired command sergeant major who worked on water distribution lines in Iraq - realized the village was in the midst of a water shortage, he laced up his boots and headed to the village-office-turned-command-center to lend a hand.

The crisis roused the whole community to an unprecedented level of volunteering. People opened the few functional restrooms in the village and worked in shifts handing out bottled water. Garcia, with his specialized knowledge and first-hand experience with the lines, pumps, boosters and pressure regulators in Questa, was quickly welcomed into the fold.

For nearly a month, Garcia worked in concert with the public works employees, elected politicians, contracted engineers, state and county emergency responders and a battery of volunteers to get the water system back up and running.

It was tedious work.

"It's a giant math problem," Garcia recently told The Taos News.

He and his impromptu crew took new measurements for everything in the system, like the capacity of the storage tank, the ideal and actual pressure of the distribution lines and even where the lines were. They had to read meters, check values and crunch numbers. And to do most of this, they had to wait until after 10 p.m. and work until dawn, when no one was awake or using water.

Ever so slowly, the village got its water back.

Looking back, Garcia thinks the village's water system is more functional that it was a year ago. People understand its quirks, there are maps that never existed or were lost and village leaders are dedicated to doing more to keep the system in good working order.

But the troubles that led to the crisis didn't crop up in a day, and Garcia worries that in another couple of years, walking the water lines and troubleshooting low pressures might be necessary again.

"It's better," Garcia said. "But how much better is it?"

'A pretty tough time'

Last year's water crisis in Questa - a village of about 1,700 residents  - did not hit everyone equally or at the same time.

The south side of town lost water when one of of the village's two wells went out around Dec. 1. It wasn't until a few days later that most of the village was dry. Questa needed a new municipal well and by Dec. 12 it was drilled 10 feet away and 200 feet deeper than the one that went dry. But getting distribution and residential water lines pressurized was slow work and water wasn't fully restored until about Jan. 10.

By most measures, Questa weathered the storm. There was some political fallout, with the council and mayor fighting over responsibility for the crisis and how to move forward. The former village administrator resigned amid the wrangling, leaving the village's few other employees and its elected officials to fill in the gaps.

Yet for residents, the outage meant a Christmas with no water for toilets or showers, drinking or laundry.

Sharon Nicholson, who runs Questa's one-room library, said the weight of the crisis was obvious in the faces, voices and posture of people coming in to ask her - really anybody with some official information or an educated guess - "What's going on? When's it going to end?"

Just down the road, the health clinic was a hub for weary Questeños looking for a little relief.

Clinic administrator Patty Torres and her team opened their doors. They unloaded hundreds of bottles of water in an extra exam room and ran back and forth to fill toilet tanks - all between the 60 or so regular patients the clinic still saw every day.

"No one had facilities so we got a lot of traffic. We kept the restrooms open because a lot of folks, especially older folks, were having real problems," she said. "It was a pretty tough time."

'What everyone always said'

In moments of crisis, it's natural for people to turn to the politicians in charge of the infrastructure they depend on. And Mark Gallegos, mayor of the village, felt that during the immediacy of the crisis and in the year since.

The hardest question he kept getting over and over again was, "If you knew about this, why didn't you do anything about it?"

In the weeks leading up to the full-blown outage, the staff at the health clinic "started noticing the water was getting cloudy and filled with bubbles." Looking back, Torres said, "We should of gotten the clue something was happening."

But the issues with the village's water system go much further back than that. When Danny Garcia was the utilities superintendent for the village in the 1980s, "we knew there were some problems even back then," he said.

Gallegos said that after he was elected mayor, old mayors warned him of the problems.

"We've always known the water system worked a certain way, that there was a lot of water in the summer and then the second well would get air pockets because the water table drops. That's what everyone always said was the norm," said Gallegos.

But even though everyone knew about the problems, they didn't know the extent of them - or the extent of the water system for that matter.

Gallegos and Garcia both remember that everyone was "scrambling for hours on end" trying to find old maps and, when they couldn't come up with many, had to draw new ones based on the bits and pieces of institutional knowledge folks had and whatever they could figure out on the daily and nightly walks along the water lines.

Garcia said that many of the water distribution lines were laid in the 1960s. Municipal wells, storage tanks, boosters and de-pressurizers were added in drips and drabs over the last half century. Today's water system has four distinct zones linked together with regulators and Garcia estimates there's at least 800 feet of elevation change between the highest and lowest points in the system. Augmenting the village's water infrastructure with "improvements" over the years has left it in a state Garcia politely described as "complex."

It took Garcia and a team of engineers and volunteers a month of methodically investigating each part of the water system to re-learn how its all fits together and figure out the problems.

And there were a lot of problems. Aside from the well going dry, the outage also involved pressure regulators between the upper and lower zones of the water system failing because of an obvious lack of maintenance, Garcia said. But after they fixed that issue and got water in the major distribution lines going to the schools and some residents, pressure built and in a couple of places popped the lines like an over-inflated bicycle tire, Garcia said.

Volunteers had to walk the water lines in order to find the leaks caused by too much pressure. And that took a while because, sitting next to the Red River, the water from the leak wasn't readily surfacing.

And even after Garcia and his team identified the major leaks, they realized how residential leaks - like a running toilet or dripping faucet - add up to a significant drain on the system.

Many of the leaks have been repaired throughout the past year, but some of the more costly and least worrisome of them have been left for future projects, according to village officials.

Common problems, unique solutions

Though a widespread water outage like the one in Questa doesn't happen every day, it happens often enough the village shouldn't feel like the odd man out.

Bill Conner, executive director of the New Mexico Rural Water Association, told The Taos News that municipal water woes tend to share a common trait - the loss of institutional knowledge.

Losing the on-the-ground knowledge of these complicated, quirky and sometimes surprising systems is an issue not just in New Mexico but around the country.

"The history and location of things in these water systems has often been kept in the operator's head, especially when they are there over many years. When they're gone, that's a huge void," Conner said.

In the voids, it takes a lot of hard work to bring the current operators up to speed on the particulars of the system. That happened in Magdalena, a town of less than 1,000 people that's located half an hour from Socorro in Southern New Mexico.

The town had three wells but in 2013 each one failed. Jake Finch, the town's joint utility manager, has only been in his position for about a year but heard about the harried hustle during the crisis.

"Most stuff is pretty standard, but there are some spots where they had to talk to the people who have worked here in the past to get the information on where the water lines were," he said.

System logistics aren't the only issue shared among small municipalities like Questa and Magdalena. So is money.

Conner said funding is available for small governments to improve their water systems. There are grant-loan packages from various state offices and the federal USDA, which help foot the bill for cash-strapped communities. For example, Questa paid roughly $450,000 out of the general fund to resolve the water crisis, which the mayor says was only possible because of the former administrator's frugality and planning. The village has to absorb the cost of the new well, about $300,000, because it is an infrastructure upgrade. But Questa was awarded a grant-loan package from the Department of Homeland Security to pay off the rest.

And there's New Mexico's infamous capital outlay funding, which is a pool of money allocated by the Legislature to infrastructure projects annually. But that is hit or miss, a cutting truth Questa learned in 2017 when no capital outlay funds came out of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

But rarely is even this funding adequate to really overhaul a water system so it is assured to be in good working order for decades.

"The truth is, put all the sources of funding together, compare that to all the needs for infrastructure in the country and there's not enough for all of it," Conner said.

So as with Questa, municipalities are left to piece their system together over time and plan to replace a portion of the infrastructure to "wind up with true improvements...and better functionality."

Though Gallegos said the village hasn't raised water rates as a result of the outage, the financial pressures haven't let up.

"Water's not free anymore and it costs money to get it to our consumers. We cobble money together....but it's a cycle that never seems to stop," he said.

Gallegos is confident the village "can make it through the winter without any issues" but is "prepared if anything does come up," he said.

But with the ever-present challenge of averting another water emergency, village leaders, including the new administrator Nicholas Maestas, are focusing their efforts on operations - that is, maintaining all the equipment so it doesn't go out unexpectedly and leave residents in a lurch.

"We're going to manage it so we don't have to do this every four or five years," Gallegos said.

The rural water association is providing Questa with training for its employees - there's no public works director at the moment - phone support and a water system operator who occasionally comes to the village to ensure everything checks out.

But Garcia wonders if that's enough.

"They've been using Band-Aids for the last 15 years. To really understand [the system] from A to Z, you have to spend time and money. You can't roll through water superintendents," Garcia said.

"There are multiple reasons why have you can have high or low pressure. And there are multiple fixes. But you want to fix the problem, not the symptom."

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