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NM Residents Using Contaminated Water As Memos Fall Short

Some 7,000 households in New Mexico have been under a boil advisory due to a faulty valve recirculating dirty water, but not everyone was aware.

Irene Begay didn't get the memo.

A 27-year resident of Crouch Mesa, an unincorporated community near the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico, Begay never received the boil advisory issued May 25 after a faulty valve began recirculating dirty water to an estimated 7,000 households. When repairs lagged, the New Mexico Environment Department issued a second boil advisory, which has been in effect since June 3.

Begay, Navajo, didn’t receive that one, either.

“Most of these notices were put up on Facebook, but I don’t use Facebook,” Begay told ICTMN. “I didn’t even know the water was bad. I was still drinking it, still using it, because I wasn’t aware anything was wrong.”

Begay is one of thousands of residents in this impoverished community who rely on two water systems operated by Animas Valley Water, a privately owned company now under state investigation for its failure to deliver clean drinking water. Some customers have no water at all, while others claim cloudy or foul-smelling water comes out of their faucets.

For more than a month, these residents have sought alternative sources of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and doing laundry. Others, like Begay, were oblivious to the crisis and continued using the water. She learned of the boil advisory only after attending a community meeting June 28.

“There were no notices on our doors,” she said. “No one was telling us anything.”

The lack of communication and transparency are on a long list of complaints lodged against Animas Valley Water in the last month. New Mexico’s Environment Department and Public Regulation Commission both have launched investigations into the company and its aging treatment facility.

During a preliminary site inspection, the Environment Department found 29 significant deficiencies, including improper treatment and filtration systems, incorrectly labeled chemical tanks and a lack of operations and maintenance plans. The findings prompted Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn to issue two emergency orders requiring the company to make repairs and develop permanent solutions.

But it may take two more weeks for safe drinking water to arrive at Crouch Mesa homes, Germaine Chappelle, a representative of Animas Valley Water, told customers during a meeting June 30. Addressing a crowd of about 1,000 residents, Chappelle said temporary pumps are being installed as the water company works to connect with municipal water lines. She promised a permanent solution by July 15.

“We extend our deepest apologies for what’s going on,” she said. “This is very hard and we are doing everything we can.”

Hosted by San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter, the meeting included updates from the Environment Department and the PRC. The agencies also fielded questions from residents, many of whom expressed frustration about ongoing water concerns during the hottest months of the year and the lack of consistent information about whether tap water is safe to use.

“My water isn’t cloudy,” said Ivan Martinez, Navajo. “It doesn’t smell, so I thought I could keep using it normally. This is really starting to worry me.”

As the crisis continues, the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management has opened free, around-the-clock water filling stations, and local parks and colleges are offering free showers. Residents are asked to continue conserving non-potable water by using filling station water to flush toilets, refraining from watering lawns or filling pools, taking laundry to laundromats and reusing bath water.

The latest state-issued advisory, updated June 30, cautions users to boil water for five minutes “before drinking, cooking, dishwashing and bathing.” The advisory is in effect until further notice.

Should the company fail to deliver clean water by July 15, it faces a $1,000-per-day fine from the Environment Department.