Chama villagers gather to spend a week without water | Local News


First there was the pandemic.

Then the windstorm that brought down the power lines at the beginning of the year, depriving the village of Chama of light and heat.

Then, last Monday, when the residents turned on the faucets in their sinks, there was another surprise.

On Friday evening, as news spread that repairs had finally been made to Chama’s troubled water system – a leaking pipe that helped keep this community of 1,000 people dry 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 that life without water was not so much a personal sacrifice as a call to make sure their neighbors remained whole.

“Most of the time it’s boring,” teenager Marcelo Baeza said as he took a break from a basketball game with some of his friends on Friday. “You have to carry a lot of five-gallon jugs.”

He said it was because “we have to help our grandmother and our grandfather”.

Locals here say the small town in Rio Arriba County, near the Colorado border, comes together when times get tough. It is a place where family and friends look out for each other when it comes to dealing with challenges that affect the community.

“We’re Chama, New Mexico,” Baeza said. “We always get by.”

But in a time when water is increasingly scarce and precious, many cities would do well to take note of what happened here last week. In many ways, many places in New Mexico are facing the prospect of becoming like Chama.

What happened on Monday morning was sobering: residents woke up without water to drink, bathe or flush the toilet. Almost as alarmingly, there was nothing in the pipes that could help the land or the livestock.

Trucks carrying water quickly became commonplace outside City Hall, located downtown in a former lumber store. People lined up on foot or in vehicles to fill jugs, bottles and buckets with water for drinking and other needs – like flushing toilets.

Other images painted a darker picture of the pain of lack of water.

In most lodge and hotel parking lots that line US 84 leading to Chama from the south, there were few or no vehicles.

This meant fewer rooms rented, fewer full restaurant tables, less reason for anyone to stop in the normally bustling tourist town – and less money sitting in village cash registers.

“It hurt us a lot,” said Chama resident Billy Elbrock, who runs Fina’s Diner on the village’s main street. He, like other business owners, had no choice but to shut down on days when there was no water to operate.

A worker at a downtown hotel – one that was empty, with a ‘closed until further notice’ sign posted in a window – said there was no water to clean or do the laundry.

The question of maintaining hygiene standards without water came knocking — as did customers with arms laden with laundry baskets — at Speed ​​Queen Laundry, located not far from Chama Public Schools.

Speed ​​Queen Laundry owner Rick Kirsling said he knew something was wrong when he tried to use his restroom early Monday morning, about half an hour before the store opened. laundromat, and the toilet didn’t flush.

“We just woke up on Monday,” he said.

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

While the laundromat was closed for much of the week – resulting in an estimated loss of $250 a day – Kirsling tried to amuse his customers by suggesting that they wash their clothes in the nearby Rio Chama, and “we will continue to dry them for you.”

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

Watching Chama Oasis, which draws its village’s water from the nearby Rio Chama, dry up made Kirsling realize that in the village, fresh water is “a luxury, not a right.”

Elsewhere, townspeople spoke of the little inconveniences they endured during the week: boiling water to make formula for infants, using unsafe water for sponge baths and counting on plastic bottles for drinking water.

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

” We are thirsty ! said realtor Christie Bundren of Realty One of Chama.

Joking aside, she said many locals were helping elderly neighbors who needed help transporting fresh water from the tanker trucks.

She said few people complained, even though the lack of water meant a lack of business on many fronts. On Friday, many businesses on Main Street remained closed.

It’s not as if the people of Chama aren’t used to such hardships.

In recent years, villagers have often been ordered to boil their water due to malfunctions at the town’s water distribution center, which dates back to the 1990s.

“The problem is definitely the water plant,” said Chama Mayor Ernest Vigil, who took office on April 1. He referred to past efforts to upgrade and rehabilitate this facility, which had filter issues, 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. Due to issues, it is currently producing between 200 and 230 gallons per minute, said Niki Mangin of Mountain Pacific Meter Tech Services, Inc., the contracted water operator for the city.

Adding to this challenge, between the recent rains and the leak, the village has to backwash or flush the plant facility filters every day.

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

During the crisis, state agencies are providing 20,000 gallons of water a day to the city — water that is essentially used to flush the water plant system, Vigil and Mangin said.

Late last week, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order granting $450,000 to the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to assist Rio Arriba County with “emergency response, assist in prevent further damage, repair public infrastructure and reduce overall recovery time,” according to a press release issued by the Governor’s Office.

Last year, the governor earmarked $800,000 in capital expenditure funds for the repair of the water plant in Chama. Vigil said Saturday that the village has yet to use much of that money, but will need it to cover the cost of temporary system upgrades and recent efforts to find and fix the leak.

While searching for the leak, officials had to run water from the plant into city water pipes so that sound-detection technology, among other measures, could pinpoint the location of the leak.

To do this, all water meters, fire hydrants and water systems in the village had to be shut down, Mangin said.

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

As village leaders work with local contractors and state water and environmental agencies to repair 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 more than 3,000 attendees for a spiritual retreat this week, could be difficult if there isn’t enough water, he said.

“Right now it should be the busiest time of the year,” he said, exploring the prospect of a village full of locals wanting water and tourists bypassing Chama for places. who have them.

He thinks tourism trade will be halved at least in the next two weeks. He hopes all will go well for the village’s annual Chama Days celebration in mid-August, which can attract thousands of people.

Such thoughts may have been far from Marcelo Baeza’s mind as he shot across the basketball court, yards from a pool of water that once housed an ice rink.

“You go out and hang out with your friends, make the most of it,” he said. “That’s how you go through things like that.”

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