Concerns over a Southern New Mexico border utility’s capacity to manage state and federal grants for a sorely needed wastewater treatment plant prompted the New Mexico Environment Department to seek an assessment of the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority.
Dated March 10, 2016, the assessment by the Albuquerque-based Southwest Environmental Finance Center (SWEFC) was a critical portrait of a public utility entrusted with delivering safe drinking water to an estimated 21,000 people and performing competent wastewater treatment and disposal services that impact the Rio Grande, which is shared by the U.S. and Mexico.
The report was based on conversations with the Environment Department (NMED) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), two visits to the Camino Real utility (CRRUA) the previous month, and follow-up e-mails and phone calls.
Although the SWEFC praised CRRUA for its customer billing service, the consulting outfit criticized the border utility on numerous counts. It cited insufficient and improperly trained staff, absence of a clear management structure, poor asset management, lax security, questionable water rates, an inadequate water conservation strategy, and the unavailability of off-hour emergency response, among other points.
“A little bit of disbelief” is how Sunland Park City Manager Bob Gallagher recalled his reaction upon reading the report.
“We are in 2016 and I couldn’t believe some of the basic elements of Management 101 hadn’t been followed,” he said.
During one visit the SWEFC stumbled across a glaring problem: “The fences were open and unmanned at both wastewater plants… CRRUA should install an automatic fence to enable them to keep the gate closed and improve security.”
The report praised CRRUA Executive Director Brent Westmoreland, who took the job late last year, as “very supportive” of changes aimed at improving CRRUA, but noted his lack of a background in the water or wastewater field and suggested guidance from an outside entity or a highly certified water operator.
According to the SWEFC: “It is not entirely clear who reports to whom and who is ultimately responsible for water and wastewater… Everyone is responsible so no one is responsible. It is not clear which activities belong to which person so there is a lack of checks and balances.”
CRRUA’s establishment as a merger between four existing utility systems carried forth existing weaknesses, according to the Albuquerque-based consultants.
“One part is older, rural and inherited. Substandard equipment was used and maintenance was inadequate. The other part is a rapidly growing area with newer facilities. It is difficult for CRRUA to deal with both of those issues within the same facility,” SWEFC wrote.
In his written response to the assessment, Westmoreland disputed some of SWEFC’s conclusions but concurred with others. He insisted an emergency on-call system was in place all along, laid out detailed work and management schemes in progress and announced the budgeting of $100,000 for an asset management program beginning July 1.
On staffing, the utility director said pay was hiked in the 14-plus percent range this year and extensive advertising undertaken to recruit qualified water operators. Westmoreland took exception to SWEFC’s concerns that adding and running a new wastewater treatment facility would compound existing troubles.
“Holding up funding for the new facility” would only succeed in heaping more pressure on an already oversaturated plant and leave no back-up in the event of an emergency, he contended.
“CRRUA’s Executive Director will take an active role in ensuring that staff goals are established and that the facilities are operated in accordance with the law,” Westmoreland pledged.
Though poignant in its criticisms, the SWEFC assessment did not address all the issues swirling around CRRUA, most notably the two arsenic treatment plants that were broken down for long periods of time and the utility’s failure to notify customers of potentially health-harming arsenic levels in their water on multiple occasions since 2012.
“We did not get into the arsenic compliance issue, and we weren’t aware of the specific issues related to compliance at the time,” Heather Himmelberger, SWEFC director, told Frontera NorteSur (FNS). Himmelberger said the assessment focused on managerial and financial concerns, while regulatory compliance with arsenic standards and such remained under the purview of the state.
In statements at CRRUA’s June board meeting, Westmoreland said the two plants were repaired as of May 26 and a third is scheduled to go online soon.
Based at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Water and the Environment, the SWEFC is dedicated to assisting state and local governments in complying with infrastructure and financing matters, doing trainings with water utilities around the country, and “helping people help themselves” on particulars like budgeting and asset management, according to Himmelberger.
“We’re not trying to run things. We’re trying to help them improve how to do things,” she said. Founded in 1992, the SWEFC’s work is supported by a small budget from EPA and contracts from other clients, Himmelberger said.
The SWEFC assessment was the subject of a Sunland Park meeting last month that included the participation of EPA, SWEFC and CRRUA staff and board members but was closed to the public. For now, the SWEFC has not been asked to continue working on CRRUA, leaving it up to the utility, EPA and NMED to take “the next step,” Himmelberger added.
A fundamental issue raised in the SWEFC report was CRRUA’s shortage of certified Level 4 water operators, the unsung heroes who keep complex water systems flowing and the product presumably clean. CRRUA consultant Eric Lopez told FNS at last month’s board meeting that New Mexico suffers from a shortage of Level 4 operators.
“It’s not a market where there are a lot of water and wastewater operators in the state. It’s not a glamorous technology,” Lopez said. Himmelberger concurred, saying, “It’s huge problem nationwide. There is a huge operator shortage of people wanting to get into it.” The SWEFC director, who has been with her organization since 1994 and has a background in wastewater and water engineering, warned that the operator shortage is likely to get worse in the coming years when “The Silver Tsunami,” or the graying of the operator workforce, hits full force.
“They talk about it at the federal level, at the EPA, and at the American Water Works Association,” Himmelberger added. Aggravating the trained operator deficit is the higher pay offered Level 4 certification holders by the oil and gas industry, Lopez said, recalling for example how four or five operators were snagged from Las Cruces for jobs in the Carlsbad area in Southeastern New Mexico.
In an effort to curb the shortage, Doña Ana County Community College has a two-year associate water technology program, Lopez said. Under current arrangements, the county government controls the hiring for CRRUA staff. As of July 20, Doña Ana County’s website listed three openings for CRRUA water and wastewater operators. Paying from a low of $13.24 to a high of 24.68 per hour, depending on the position and the experience, the jobs require knowledge of chemistry, biological processes, assorted government regulations, and the appropriate certifications and educational background; previous experience ranging from two to five years is a must.
So far, the SWEFC assessment has not been posted on CRRUA’s website or otherwise made widely available to the public. Santa Teresa resident Paul Maxwell, whose independent tests of water in his community and in Sunland Park shed light on the arsenic problem back in the spring, said an important report on a public utility should be out in the daylight for all to see.
“They should make it public and they should have a public forum to discuss it,” Maxwell said. “I think it should be one of the primary items on their agenda. I’ve seen nothing in public or conversations with the (CRRUA) board as to how they will address it. They are treating it as a big secret.”
The next CRRUA board meeting, which is open to the public and includes a public comment session, is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27, at the utility’s headquarters located at 4950 McNutt Road in Sunland Park.