Hundreds of Arroyo Hondo residents are set to benefit from domestic water system improvements that are years overdue. Aside from a storage tank that was replaced a decade ago, much of the infrastructure dates back to the system's founding in 1969.
On Tuesday (Sept. 20), contractors broke ground on a $1.3-million project to replace the system's existing well house and the aging infrastructure within it, as well as install new conveyances across the Rio Hondo and under roads, and replace over 3,000 feet of pipe. Revamping the 175-foot-deep well is expected to increase the amount of water produced by the well, which currently has an output of 25 gallons per minute.
Jody Garcia of Souder, Miller and Associates, the engineering company that designed the multiphase project, said "the well house is probably 60 years old; the water lines are probably that old as well, and they've got areas where there are frequent breaks in the water line."
Currently, half of the produced water in the system is lost before it makes it to consumers' homes. The system has 79 connections. Because there are no meters, users are charged a flat $52 per month (plus tax).
"This is the first of two phases that will eventually replace the entire system," Garcia said, adding that a main component of the project will see the system's galvanized pipe replaced with either PVC or HDPE pipe.
"For a while there, utilities were installing galvanized iron," Garcia said. "That stuff, depending on the water chemistry, they corrode very badly."
"We've been trying to get grant money for this for the last 15 years," said Tom Sanchez, president of the Lower Arroyo Hondo Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association. "We've been putting band-aids on band-aids. We worried that it would completely fail."
There are more than 150 mutual domestic water consumer associations across New Mexico, ranging in size from a single connection to thousands of connections. Enshrined in New Mexico law, mutual domestic water associations are political subdivisions of the state that qualify for public funding through capital outlay or various state and federal grant programs and low-interest loan programs. Unlike homeowners associations, for example, mutual domestic water associations allow communities to draw on water infrastructure funding in addition to the fees they collect from system users.
The Lower Hondo association secured $784,000 from the state Water Trust Board in the form of a grant with a low-interest loan component. Small municipalities and water associations often find the Water Trust Board application process exceeds their capacities for grant writing. Souder Miller and Associates assisted the Lower Hondo water association with the process, but Garcia emphasized that "good record keeping" on the part of mutual domestics often determines an association's success at securing a grant.
"The Water Trust Board is a complicated process, but I think it's a worthwhile process," Garcia said. "Because it does, unlike some of the other funding programs, it does do a true evaluation of the need, and they take steps to ensure that the money is being well spent."
Garcia also repeated a refrain heard in every local government meeting room over the past two years: By the time contractors were ready to break ground, the original cost estimate for the project was no longer accurate. The expense of construction materials had risen by about a third.
"Over the last four-to-five years — in the time since we put that estimate together and secured the funding — costs have gone kind of haywire," Garcia said. "The cost went up significantly compared to our estimate and our funding. But what we were able to do, with the help of the New Mexico Environment Department, was secure an additional $470,000 in funding through the department's Rural Infrastructure Program to close the gap."
Sanchez noted that District 41 state Rep. Susan Herrera was instrumental in securing an additional $25,000 in capital outlay funding for the project as well.
Standing in front of the system water tank and well house with Herb Medina, water association secretary, and Steven Martinez, the association's treasurer, Sanchez said, "We went to the legislature and spoke to them, and also the Water Trust Board, and we were finally able to acquire the grants that were necessary. We just wanted to have a groundbreaking to make sure the community knows all our efforts and their efforts came to fruition."
Medina said that fellow board member Diana Martinez a lot of effort into securing funding for the project, as did board member Pablo Jaramillo, who passed away last year.
Work officially begins on Phase 1 of the Lower Hondo water project on Oct. 3. It is expected to last 90 days. Garcia said the water association is in the process of applying to the Water Trust Board for a second grant and loan — due at the end of this week — with which to fund the second phase of the project. Phase 2 will include radio-read meters, a new chlorination system, new fire hydrants and other items. Once the consumer meters are installed, the association will likely institute a tiered rate system for consumers.
According to planning documents, the entire project "consists of demolition of the existing well house, construction of a new well house, replacement of existing well house infrastructure and piping, installation of approximately 2,000 linear feet (LF) of 8-inch PVC waterline (by open trench), 1,155 LF of 8-inch PVC waterline" — most likely by horizontal directional drilling — "NM 522 and County Road B005 crossings by jack and bore, Rio Hondo River crossing, valves, fire hydrants, water meters and appurtenances."
Garcia explained that one advantage of horizontal directional drilling is that it's "minimally invasive," and won't disrupt traffic along NM 522. The well house and water tank are located on the east side of NM 522, roughly a quarter mile south of the Midtown Market in Arroyo Hondo.
"Horizontal directional drilling is generally more expensive, but with us being right next to the highway, the traffic control would have to be fairly extensive if they were going to try to dig a trench," Garcia said.