Water projects report is full of holes, but better than nothing

Truth or Consequences Water and Wastewater Director Arnie Castaneda gave a report on water projects and their funding at the regular city commission meeting May 8, which was full of holes, but far better than the zero reporting from other department heads except Chief of Police Luis Tavizon .

Castaneda handed out copies of the nine-page report to the city commissioners at the meeting. I had to submit an Inspection of Public Records Act request in order to get a copy, since it was not included in the packet. As usual, the city’s sound system was so bad it was nearly impossible to understand what Castaneda said, making a written copy essential to follow along. I include a copy at the end of this article.

I had several questions about the report once I had a chance to look it over, so I called the department and Jamie Foreman, the regulatory compliance specialist, called me back. She was angered by my questions and hung up on me, which was still far better than the usual no-response I get most of the time from city staff and city commissioners.

Castaneda and Foreman are the best among city staff at reporting and holding themselves accountable to the public.

I questioned whether Foreman had the dates correct on U.S. Senator Heinrich’s $1.6 million grant (page 2 of Castaneda’s report). The report gives 2024 as the award year, but it was given in 2023. That’s why the money was on hand and could be used to meet the required match to the $16-million request the city made for Water Trust Board funds for emergency repairs to the city’s waterlines during the 2024 legislative session.

I questioned whether the city received $4.3 million in capital outlay in 2023 (page 2) and asked what documents Foreman referenced in writing the report. “Arnie told me,” Foreman said.

Castaneda is evidently unaware that the city received $500,000 each from our state Representatives Gail Armstrong and Tara Jaramillo and $1.5 million from state Senator Crystal Brantley and $1.8 million from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in March 2024. The $4.3 million in capital outlay is also for emergency waterline repairs and will be received in July, according to Mayor Rolf Hechler’s verbal reporting in recent city commission meetings.

The July $4.3 million, according to Hechler, will pay for emergency waterline plans, engineering and design related to the $16 million award. Only when those are complete will the $16 million from the Water Trust Board be released, probably in batches corresponding to phased construction, Hechler has stated.

Castaneda’s report differs from Hechler’s verbal statements. On page 7, Castaneda states the city has received $4.4 million from the Colonias Infrastructure Board in 2024. This award has not come before the city commission. Foreman said she and Castaneda gave a presentation to the CIB in April. This $4.4 million from CIB and not the $4.3 million in capital outlay is to be used to pay for emergency waterline design and engineering related to the $16 million awarded by the Water Trust Board.

Castaneda’s report states the $16 million from the WTB and the $4.4 million from CIB will be used to fix waterlines on Veater Street and the “metal” streets leading off of Veater, as well as the “north metal streets.” Foreman confirmed that these north metal streets are Silver and Gold streets,“south of the hospital.”

Castaneda’s report states the $4.3 million capital outlay (page 9) will pay for “shovel ready” projects, meaning that engineering and design are complete, which is contradicted by Castaneda also stating that the $4.3 million will pay for both design and construction. The shovel ready projects are:

Phase 1: Pressure regulation valves and waterlines on 6th Street and Broadway, transmission line from Cook Street Station to Morgan Booster Station, and a water tank at Cook Street Station.

Phase 2: Waterline replacement on East Riverside Drive and Date Street

Phase 3: “Shortfalls from 2nd Street, 8th Street and 9th Street water line and WSPI 1.”

Concerning Phase 1, I know that the $9.4 million MSD or Main Street District water project, page 3 of Castaneda’s report, had been cut down several times. One cut was a $1.5-million water tank at Cook Street Station. Currently all water is pumped from the five or six wells that are operating to a 900,000-gallon tank at Cook Street, which is also the chlorination-treatment tank. A larger tank and “redundancy” were deemed necessary in the original MSD plan.

WSPI 1, decoded, is “water system performance improvements phase one. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the city a $2.7 million grant and $4.8 million loan (page 6 of Castaneda’s report), which includes the transmission line from Cook Street Station to Morgan Booster Station and pressure regulation valves and Broadway’s waterline replacement. I can’t find an engineering plan that refers to 6th Street waterline replacement.

Concerning Phase 2, I can find no prior plans referring to waterline replacement on East Riverside and Date streets.

Concerning Phase 3, 2nd Street waterline replacement is part of the “water systems improvement” project, page 4 of Castaneda’s report. It was funded by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund in 2019, $620,542 grant and $620,543 loan. In 2021, the Colonias Infrastructure Fund gave the city a $450,000 grant, $50,000 loan, which required a $50,000 city match. The project money available is therefore $1,791,085. The project includes waterline replacement on Sierra Vista Street, West 2nd Street and Marshall Street. Foreman told me this project is nearly complete, but it appears that project has run out of money, since Castaneda is proposing the $4.3 million in capital outlay is needed to complete it.

WSPI 1 includes waterline replacement on 8th and 9th streets, so evidently the $7.5 million USDA grant/loan is insufficient to complete that project as well.

I asked Foreman what stage the projects are in.

The $9.4 million MSD or downtown water project, (page 3 of Castaneda’s report), is awaiting electrical parts that run the Cook Street Station, as well as a “pump installation.” The parts are expected in June, Foreman said.

The $1.79 million Water System Improvements project, (page 4 of Castaneda’s report) is “close to completion,” Foreman said.

The $712,000 Austin St. Booster Station project, (page 5 of Castaneda’s report) is “pending SCADA equipment, when the electric team can get to it,” Foreman said. According to my Google search, SCADA is supervisory control and data acquisition.

The $7.5 million WSPI 1 project, (page 6 of Castaneda’s report) is still in the design phase, Foreman said, although she couldn’t name the engineering firm.

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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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