Shocking report from water/wastewater director

Truth or Consequences Water and Wastewater Department Director Arnie Castaneda broke down while reporting the city almost didn’t have any water due to a pump failure.

Castaneda prepared a written report for the Nov. 15 city commission meeting. He has been giving verbal updates regularly for the last three months or so during city meetings, the only regular reporter among the city’s directors. The verbal reports are an improvement, and the written report a further  welcome improvement in transparency and communication with the public.

Castaneda explained that there have been “electrical control problems” at the Cook Street Station. Cook Street is the water system’s Grand Central Station. Cook Street receives the water from the wells, has the only chlorination tank to treat the water to make it safe for drinking, and all the city’s water is then pumped out to the city’s water tanks.

The city has “four or five wells,” Castaneda said, and all of them had “to be shut down” six weeks ago (presumably meaning the pumps inside the wells shut off) while fixing the electric problem. Castaneda gave no further details, but appeared to correlate the electric problems to what happened over two or three days starting around Nov. 6.

An alarm went off at the Cook Street Station, he said. The “electrical motor tripped,” and when a worker “tried to reset the motor,” it “blew out” and “caught fire.”

Castaneda said the Cook Street Station used to have two pumps, “but for some reason one of the pumps was pirated to fix the other one.” He eventually located another “250 horse power engine” but couldn’t get it to start. He called “the electrician,” (probably the city’s only licensed electrician) and he couldn’t fix it. A private electrician was called, but his company insisted the city sign a waiver that the company had no liability if this engine also blew when it was hooked up to the electric panel. The waiver was signed. Castaneda said the private electrician thought it was a “voltage problem with the panel.”

Castaneda realized that the water levels in the tanks, after two days, were at “critical level and we needed a plan B.”

He and City Manager Angela Gonzales contacted County Emergency Manager Ryan Williams. Williams started lining up water trucks to deliver water if necessary.

The private electrician fixed the problem and the water delivery was not necessary. Castaneda didn’t indicate if it was a temporary or permanent fix, or exactly what the problem was.

At this point in the report Castaneda stopped, wiping his eyes and holding his head down. When he resumed he said it has been his duty for 30 years to deliver clean water to the people, “and this is the closest I came to not being able to do that.”

Castaneda said he came back to work for the city last February. They only had one water employee and four wastewater employees then and now there are two administrators, five water and three wastewater workers. He did not explain if he is still short of workers. Castaneda created a new position among one of the administrators. She is in charge of “regulations and compliance,” a hiring that seems to be related to a recent issue with the New Mexico Environment Department.

The city’s “head works” at the wastewater plant screen out the bigger debris that would otherwise “clog the pumps,” Castaneda said. The head works were destroyed during the July 2020 flood, and the city workers have been manually clearing the debris for more than three years, Castaneda said.

The NMED considers the space the workers have to go into to clear the headworks “a confined space,” Castaneda said, which evidently relates to the NMED’s added requirements. The city has to come up with a “rescue plan,” “SCBA gear” (self-contained breathing apparatus), and “gas monitors.”

Castaneda said he will be asking the city to fix these headworks soon as a “high priority problem,” as well as the “vacuum station” on North Riverside. There is only one company that sells the parts to fix the station and they are very expensive. He will ask the city to put in “customary lift stations” instead of expecting city workers to maintain this outmoded system.

Castaneda said that the city’s “vacuum truck” has broken down, which has slowed their ability to repair water leaks. Presumably the vacuum truck sucks away excess water so the workers can get to the leak.

Last fiscal year there were about 400 water leaks, but the city doesn’t know for sure, since it is not until Castaneda was made department director and he instituted recording the date and location of breaks that an accurate record has been kept.

Castaneda has also instituted schedule changes that rotate staff seven days a week, thus saving money on overtime. Last fiscal year the city paid almost $75,000 in water/wastewater department overtime. He has changed employment rewards to encourage people to get certified as water and wastewater workers.

During public comment I asked two questions.

First, I said that I thought that the $10 million downtown water project recently completed had initially included about $2 million in upgrades and repairs to the Cook Street Station. The project was cut down about four times to match the grant/loan budget. I asked who decided what to cut out and if the pumps and electrical work at Cook Street had been cut out of the project. I said it looked like priority setting was not being properly handled and said the city needs to put together a master plan to put in priority and phases the $200 million or so it has in water and wastewater repairs and replacement, especially where water and sewer lines run parallel. I said the “piecemeal” approach to water and wastewater repairs has not been working.

Later in the meeting City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson said the city was doing piecemeal repairs “because the money comes in piecemeal.” She also said an “engineer made the decision” as to how the downtown water project was to be cut down and the process of the reductions “was totally transparent.”

Mayor Amanda Forrister, if I understood her correctly, said the Cook Street portion of the project was not cancelled, but delayed 257 days.

Harrelson’s remarks reveals she feels no responsibility for capital projects and sees no problem in having an engineer, probably a Wilson & Co. engineer, make decisions for the people on city projects. I would point out that an engineering firm’s goals are to make money, and the more the city’s infrastructure fails, the more money the firm will make, especially if the city doesn’t monitor what the firm does and doesn’t ask any questions to ensure the people’s interests and pocketbook are safeguarded. Her comment about money coming in piecemeal shows she does not understand that planning does not also have to be piecemeal.

The city does projects Assistant City Manager Traci Alvarez gets grants for. The city does not follow a master plan, department directors do not draft or follow asset management plans, so pirated motors and broken headworks are not reported. The city staff and the city commission never refer to the city’s comprehensive plan. The city is rudderless.

The last five budget sessions I have attended have only discussed the operations budget and not the capital projects budget. The capital projects budget is at least $31 million of the $53 million budget the city commission passed for this fiscal year.

I asked Forrister during the break to repeat what she had said about Cook Street, but she ignored me. I asked Mayor Pro Tem Rolf Hechler if the Cook Street portion of the project had been cut down and he said “I don’t know.” I asked City Commissioner Merry Jo Fahl the same question and she also said, “I don’t know,” and “I can’t keep track of all that.”

I have an IPRA in with the city about what was cut out of the downtown water project.

Second, I said that the city had declared a state of emergency after the July 2020 flood and I asked why the sewer headworks had not been replaced by those state emergency funds. I received no response to that question.

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Kathleen Sloan
Kathleen Sloan

Kathleen Sloan has been a local-government reporter for 17 years, covering counties and cities in three states—New Mexico, Iowa and Florida. She has also covered the arts for various publications in Virginia, New Mexico and Iowa. Sloan worked for the Truth or Consequences Herald newspaper from 2006 to 2013; it closed December 2019. She returned to T or C in 2019 and founded the online newspaper, the Sierra County Sun, with Diana Tittle taking the helm as editor during the last year and a half of operation. The Sun closed December 2021, concurrent with Sloan retiring. SierraCountySun.org is still an open website, with hundreds of past articles still available. Sloan is now a board member of the not-for-profit organization, the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, which supported the Sun and is currently sponsoring the Sierra County Citizen, another free and open website. Sloan is volunteering as a citizen journalist, covering the T or C beat. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you for attending and reporting back to the community, Kathleen.

    I fear there will be a day when this will be beyond repair.

  2. I would like to see an in depth article on Wilson and Company. They seem to be involved closely with the city and its weirdness. Also talk to Jeff Dornbushe (sp?) and get his slant on the water/sewage system. He worked on it and expressed to me how limited our water resources are.
    Just shows how close to edge this city runs! Follow the money!

  3. A year ago my daughter worked for the water dept. She did repairs everyday. Veter st is some kind of joke. I feel stress for the people on that street. My street crosses Veter. I wont drive down it anymore. Im afraid Im going to drive into a sink hole. The whole water line form one end to the other is a giant bandaid. More rubber bandaid repairs than actual pipe. If that isnt a priority and something isnt done there will be a problem keeping people in this town. Its also contaminated. How could it not be. When my daughter got Ecoli her work buddies said” now your one of us”!! Ha ha. So whats really going on. This is a place for people to relax and be healthy . We strive for that. Back to the one step forward , ten steps back with two left feet. Not cool. HEALTH IS A PRIORITY

  4. Wilson and Co. is not to blame. They are hired by the city. The city is responsible for its capital projects. And as a private, hired company, they would not speak with me. In my 18 years of being a local government reporter, no private engineer has spoken to me without first getting the government agency’s permission first and then only reluctantly. They don’t make money speaking to reporters. They don’t help their company by speaking to reporters unless it is a puff piece. Why a story on them???

    Jeff Dornebush has been a Public Utility Advisory Board member for eight years or so? It is his duty to report to the people in public. Not one on one, not behind the scenes. It is a citizen advisory board, but he is not representing the citizens. He is among the majority in town who believe the people are out to rip off the city and the city should never be made to look bad or heaven forbid be held accountable. He called me out during a PUAB meeting for being a liar when I did a perfectly factual electric-rate comparison story. When I asked formally for the correction he referred to, no answer. Of course!

    I have done numerous stories about the secrecy of the whole capital projects hiring process and how capital projects get into the pipeline. Numerous. I hammer on it.

    We need a city planner/engineer who is able to evaluate responding engineering firms to RFPs and bids. One whose salary doesn’t change according to what company is awarded. One who has the training and critical thinking to evaluate engineering reports and to publicly report to the people.

  5. Thank you, Kathleen, for your integrity, and for your tenacious reporting of these matters. Without you and the SIEREA COUNTY CITIZEN, we the public would be completely in the dark about the atrocious state of our water utility management. The situation seems overwhelming. But shedding light on the problem, as you do, is the first step toward correcting it. Appreciate you greatly.

  6. I’m just wondering how confident people drinking the water we get from the tap these days are.
    I used to go to the place on the corner of Date and 4th to get purified water by the gallon but stopped doing it a while back. I think I may have to get a Brita water filter or start going back there.

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