Llano Quemado water outage exposes a web of issues

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Berlynda Rugelio, a senior who lives in a mobile home off of Old Santa Fe Road in Llano Quemado, was getting ready to take a shower Thursday (Dec. 21) when she realized there was no water coming out of the faucet.

Over Christmas and in the days since, she's had to make do with sponge baths, leaving the dishes to clean later and filling one-gallon jugs down the road. As of Wednesday (Dec. 27), she still doesn't have water.

Rugelio's trailer is one of only two homes that has been without water since last week; the other is her rental property next door.

But the cause of the outage - a damaged water line that ties in with the Llano Quemado domestic water system - reveals a more complicated web of issues for small water associations dealing with sometimes big problems.

Andrew Chavez, president of the Llano Quemado Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, told The Taos News in an interview Dec. 27 that he was alerted by a neighboring water association last Thursday that a utility crew had cut into a Llano Quemado water line.

"There they were with their boring instruments in the ground and water coming out," Chavez said of the crew with CableCom, a cable contractor based in Albuquerque.

 Chavez said the water line that they bored into is privately owned, meaning it's not legally the responsibility of the water association to fix. But the damage was causing problems to the whole system.

Not only was water pouring from the initial leak, he said, but the damage caused another leak further down the private line. Chavez estimates that by the time he and a plumber found the second leak Friday evening (Dec. 22), nearly 100,000 gallons had leaked from the association's storage tanks - roughly one-fifth of the total storage capacity in the system.

"If we were not losing so much water, I wouldn't have gotten involved," Chavez said.

But in this case, he had to.

Chavez hired Ruben Martinez of Redwolf Plumbing, a local outfit that does work for many of the water systems around the Taos area.

Between Thursday and Friday (Dec. 21-22), more than 200 water customers in Llano Quemado temporarily lost water as Martinez tried to find the leak - made all the harder because no maps exist of older water lines in the area.

By Friday evening, the community's water system was stabilized because Martinez had capped the major leak in the line. It was only Rugelio and her tenants who were without water over the Christmas weekend.

Though the impact over the holiday reached only a few people, its clear there was a lapse in communication. Rugelio told The Taos News she was not informed that the community-wide issue had been resolved at the expense of her not having water. Her tenants tried calling Chavez but couldn't get through. They tried calling the town of Taos and even the 911 dispatch center. But the town was closed for the holidays, and the private water line is not under town jurisdiction.

The Taos County emergency manager delivered 10 cases of water for Rugelio and her tenants on Christmas Eve. Other than that, Rugelio said she felt abused and abandoned.

The plumbing contractor did not return to Llano Quemado until Wednesday (Dec. 27), mostly because the same issue that caused the problem - intersecting utility lines - also makes it difficult and time consuming to fix.

Martinez told The Taos News Tuesday (Dec. 26) there are as many as four internet lines in the way. "I can't hit a fiber optic line, so I can't just get in there with a backhoe," he said.

Furthermore, the leak is under an acequia, meaning the ground is likely frozen deep enough that it will take at least a day to get to the ruptured line.

"It's not a fast excavation," Martinez said. On Wednesday, he estimated water could be fully restored by the evening.

Chavez could not estimate the total cost of the repairs, but told The Taos News that because it was a CableCom crew that caused the damage, the company will be footing the bill.

Miguel Gonzalez, a project manager with CableCom, said in an Wednesday phone interview that the company is investigating the incident to determine fault. He said the damaged line was not properly marked by the water association while Chavez says that, as a private line, it wasn't their responsibility to do so.

"We are still trying to figure out whose responsibility it is," Gonzalez said. "Either way, things will be resolved and taken care of.

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