Villagers of Chama come together to get through week without water

·7 min read

Jun. 26—CHAMA

First there was the pandemic.

Then the windstorm that brought down the power lines earlier this year, depriving the village of Chama of light and warmth.

Then, last Monday, when residents turned on their sink faucets, there was another surprise.

Nothing came out.

Chama was out of water.

By late Friday, as news seeped out that repairs had finally been made on Chama's troubled water system — a line leak that contributed to this community of 1,000 drying up for several days — many here breathed a sigh of relief, both for the resolution of the crisis and their ability to stick together.

Some even said life without water wasn't so much a personal sacrifice as a call to making sure their neighbors stayed whole.

"Mostly it's annoying," said teen Marcelo Baeza as he paused from a game of basketball with some of his friends Friday. "You have to carry a lot of five-gallon jugs."

He said that's because "we have to help our grandma and grandpa."

Residents here say the small Rio Arriba County town near the Colorado border comes together when times are tough. It's a place where family and friends look out for one another when it comes to contending with challenges that affect the community.

"We're Chama, New Mexico," Baeza said. "We always get through it."

But in an era when water is increasingly scarce and precious, a lot of towns might do well to take note of what happened here last week. In a lot of ways, many places in New Mexico face the prospect of becoming like Chama.

What happened Monday morning was sobering: Residents awoke without water to drink, bathe or flush. Almost as alarming, there was nothing from the pipes that could help land or livestock.

Trucks carrying water quickly became a common sight outside City Hall, located downtown in an old lumber store building. People lined up on foot or in vehicles to fill jugs, bottles and buckets of water for drinking and other needs — like flushing toilets.

Other images painted a starker portrait of how the lack of water hurt.

In most parking lots of the lodges and hotels that line U.S. 84 leading into Chama from the south, there were few if any vehicles.

Which meant fewer rooms rented, fewer restaurant tables full, fewer reasons for anyone to stop in the normally bustling tourist town — and less money in the village's cash register tills.

"It hurt us a bunch," said Chama resident Billy Elbrock, who runs Fina's Diner on the main drag of the village. He, like the other who own businesses, had little choice but to close down for days when there was no water to operate.

An employee of a downtown hotel — one that was empty, with a "closed until further notice" sign posted in one window — said there was no water to clean or do laundry.

The issue of maintaining hygienic standards without water came knocking on the door — as did patrons with their arms full of laundry baskets — at Speed Queen Laundry, located not far from Chama's public schools.

Speed Queen Laundry owner Rick Kirsling said he knew something was afoot when he tried to use his toilet early Monday morning, about a half hour before the laundromat opens, and it didn't flush.

"We just woke up to it Monday," he said.

By midday Friday, when water access was restored to about half the village, Kirsling's business was restricted to using about half its 21 washers as a water conservation measure.

While the laundromat was closed for much of the week — resulting in an estimated loss of $250 per day — Kirsling tried to amuse his customers by suggesting they wash their clothes in the nearby Rio Chama, and "we'll still dry them for you."

Most were not amused. Then again, neither is Kirsling, who just bought the laundromat — the only one within 40 miles, he said — in September.

Watching the oasis of Chama, which draws its village water from the nearby Rio Chama, go dry made Kirsling realize that in the village, fresh water is "a luxury, not a right."

Elsewhere, townspeople spoke of the minor inconveniences they endured during the week: boiling water to make baby formula for infants, using nonpotable water to take sponge baths and relying on plastic bottles for drinking water.

Many maintained a sense of humor about it. Or tried to.

"We're thirsty!" said real estate agent Christie Bundren of Realty One of Chama.

Joking aside, she said a lot of residents were helping out elderly neighbors who needed assistance hauling fresh water from the water trucks.

She said few people were complaining, though the lack of water was leading to a lack of business on many fronts. On Friday, many Main Street businesses remained closed.

It's not as if Chama residents are not accustomed to such ordeals.

In the past few years, villagers have often been under orders to boil their water because of malfunctions with the city's water distribution center, which dates to the 1990s.

"The issue is definitely the water plant," said Chama Mayor Ernest Vigil, who took office April 1. He spoke of past efforts to upgrade and rehabilitate that facility, which has had filter problems, among other challenges, without success.

The water plant is designed to use water from the Rio Chama to create 660 gallons of fresh water per minute per day. Because of problems, it currently produces somewhere between 200 and 230 gallons a minute, said Niki Mangin of Mountain Pacific Meter Tech Services, Inc., the contracted water operator for the town.

Adding to that challenge, between recent rains and the leak, the village must backwash or flush out the filters in the plant's facility every day.

It takes about 22,000 gallons a day to do that, she and Vigil said.

During the crisis, state agencies are delivering 20,000 gallons of water a day to the town — water that in essence is being used to flush the water plant system out, Vigil and Mangin said.

Late last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order granting $450,000 for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to help Rio Arriba County with "emergency measures, help prevent additional damages, repair public infrastructure, and lessen the overall recovery time," according to a news release issued by the Governor's Office.

Last year, the governor appropriated $800,000 in capital outlay funds for water plant repairs in Chama. Vigil said Saturday the village had not yet used much of that money but will need some of it to cover the cost of temporary upgrades to the system and recent efforts to find and repair the leak.

While looking for the leak, officials had to run water from the plant into the city's water lines so sound detection technology, among other measures, could pinpoint the leak's location.

To do that, all village water meters, hydrants and water systems had to be turned off, Mangin said.

The recent water problem affected Mangin on a personal level. She joked she was reduced to wearing yoga pants on the job because she had no clean clothes due to the lack of water.

While village leaders work with local contractors and state environmental and water agencies to fix the leak, search for other possible leaks and study ways to improve the water plant, Vigil can only calculate how much the problem has cost the village in economic and cultural vitality.

Having thousands of people for a Fourth of July celebration, or planning for more than 3,000 participants for a spiritual retreat this week, could be difficult if there is not enough water, he said.

"Right now should be the busiest time of the year," he said, surveying the prospect of a village full of locals wanting water and tourists bypassing Chama for places that have it.

He figures the tourism trade will be cut at least in half over the next two weeks. He hopes all will be right for the village's annual Chama Days celebration in mid-August, which can draw thousands of people.

Such thoughts were perhaps far from Marcelo Baeza's mind as he took a shot on the basketball court, just feet away from a pool of water that was the site of a onetime ice skating rink.

"You go out and hang out with your friends, make the best of it," he said. "Thats how you get through things like this."