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Water utility in Sunland Park continues to face criticism from residents

Jesus Baquera confronts CRRUA board members and the interim executive director over his water quality.
Noah Raess (Screenshot)
Jesus Baquera confronts CRRUA board members and the interim executive director over his water quality.

Jesus Baquera and others in Sunland Park and neighboring Santa Teresa have been to many public meetings since December to voice their concerns over the safety of the water that they are being provided. They said it had nearly four times the legal limit of arsenic, as well as elevated pH levels and discoloration.

“If you are drinking the water here in Sunland Park then you are not drinking it safely,” Baquera said.

Like many others in the area, he points the blame at the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority which serves the area with water.

“I have very low feelings for those guys. They give me a lot of anxiety because they know what they are putting out there yet they are defending themselves," Baquera said. "They also have the city council involved. The city council is no longer protecting their constituents but protecting CRRUA."

After living in the area for over 30 years, Jesus says that he has seen health effects that he thinks can be traced back to a history of bad water.

“Three of my brother-in-laws have gotten cancer and they have been living here for a long time. My wife has gotten kidney stones removed,” Baquera said.

Jesus added he once took a picture at a local laundromat with a sign that said the water is coming out yellow and that it is up to the customers if they want to wash their clothes. He also installed a water filter to his house and this was his filter after only a month of use. Others say they are experiencing health-related issues that may trace back to the water.

Water utility in Sunland Park continues to face criticism from residents

Marc Alonzo moved from out of the state to Santa Teresa three years ago and he says that he has also experienced health effects from the water.

“Persistent rashes here and there, eyelids are really red and rashed up and swollen, rashes throughout the body, my hands especially, were getting almost eczema style skin,” Alonzo said.

Like many others, Alonzo said also had to pay more to get water he trusts.

“We did the math and it was around $700 dollars that year of just paying for water because we have three five-gallon jugs, and filling those up at [a] buck twenty five each every two weeks or every week, so it does add up," Alonzo said.

Sign assures customers at a free-standing water refill station that the water they are selling is not from CRRUA.
Noah Raess (Screenshot)
Sign assures customers at a free-standing water refill station that the water they are selling is not from CRRUA.

To stop constantly filling up water jugs in El Paso, Marc and his wife eventually installed their own reverse osmosis system in their house. While this fixed their issues with the water, communication with CRRUA has been the next biggest challenge.

“We have maybe gotten in touch with CRRUA on the telephone three times, and that was just the front desk. You cannot really talk to anybody higher up," Alonzo said. "I know that one of the board members has his number posted at a bakery and you can call it any time, but it just goes straight to voicemail."

Allegations of poor communication has plagued CRRUA. Back in December, CRRUA was alerted of a possible issue with the water quality two days before notifying the public with a "Do Not Drink" order. In the days following the alert, CRRUA Chairwoman Susana Chaparro informed state representatives, senators and even the Lt. Governor Howie Morales of what happened. In January, the New Mexico Environment Department issued a press release and report that found "CRRUA management failed to protect water quality and inform customers" in this incident. Lt. Governor Morales said that the state is doing what they can.

“Some of the requests that we have had from attorneys and people in the area is if the state can just come in and take over the board, and we are not able to because of state statute," Lt. Governor Morales said. "But it does not take away the fact that we are here to provide that technical support and provide the ongoing testing and to make sure we have the funds to fix the physical plant itself.”

The Tierra Madre water tank and well sit on top of a hill off of McNutt road. A malfunctioning water pump caused discolored water in March.
Noah Raess (Screenshot)
The Tierra Madre water tank and well sit on top of a hill off of McNutt road. A malfunctioning water pump caused discolored water in March.

Those funds may be important in fixing the water infrastructure. After December, a report detailing 58 corrections was given to CRRUA to fix from the state. As of May 3rd, they have completed 70% of the checklist. Along with that, a new powers agreement is restructuring the board to have water experts on the board instead of local elected officials although this got delayed due to one of the parties losing the paperwork.

It also appears that CRRUA was off to a bad start from the beginning. In the 1990’s a feud started between the City of Sunland Park and Doña Ana County over who was going to provide water to Santa Teresa. The city and county were locked in a legal battle which ended when former Governor Bill Richardson helped create an agreement between the city and the county that resulted in CRRUA's formation.

CRRUA board member Alberto Jaramillo is one of the representatives from Sunland Park where he also serves as a city councilor. At a town hall meeting in April, a resident brought in a jar of water for him to drink. He and the executive director did not drink that water.

“One of the people that brought in the jar said that it has been sitting there for 4 months, so if they got the water 4 months ago, that doesn't mean it's going to be there now," Jaramillo said. "What I wanted to do, but didn't because of the lack of time, I wanted to go with the media to get water from the faucet to show that I drink it."

CRRUA Interim Executive Director Juan Carlos Crosby waits to speak at the April 5th, 2024 town hall meeting after a resident brings in a jar of water.
CRRUA Interim Executive Director Juan Carlos Crosby waits to speak at the April 5th, 2024 town hall meeting after a resident brings in a jar of
water.

At the same meeting, the CRRUA executive director left before people were done speaking, although Jaramillo says that he stayed 20 minutes longer than he originally agreed to. KRWG Public Media reached out to CRRUA for an interview with executive director Juan Carols Crosby but only received a list of the status of the 58 corrections back. Jaramillo says that the new agreement to restructure the board will help them get funds in the future and build the public's trust.

“Nobody was going to lend to CRRUA for 20 years if they didn't have confirmation that CRRUA would be around for 20 years. But now that the JPA is in place and has been agreed to by the city and the county now we have a certainty that we will be around," Jaramillo said. "There was actually money from colonias that we couldn't get from them even though it was ready for us because of the JPA.”

While CRRUA is attempting to build trust in the community, many people like Marc Alonzo say they are still left skeptical after decades of bad water.

“That was a thing, don't drink New Mexico water, it's always bad, but now seeing how bad it actually is is shocking," Alonzo said.

CRRUA’s new board has yet to be announced but in the time after March 18th, they have passed four arsenic tests in a row.

Noah Raess, an NMSU Journalism major, has produced many feature news stories for television, radio, and the web that have covered housing, public safety, climate, school safety, and issues facing refugees.