Relying on rain

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By David Giuliani

Four years ago, Ojitos Frios subdivision resident Jack Thompson saw his well level dropping. And so did his neighbors.

These days, Thompson and many of them have seen their wells go dry. As of last count, 62 households southwest of Las Vegas are without well water.

Many of them now get their water trucked in. A few others, including Thompson, have resorted to rain catchment systems.

But catchment systems are expensive. Thompson, whose well went dry over a year ago, paid more than $20,000 for his — a cost he readily admits most people can’t afford.

“We showed the system to a young family. They said they didn’t know if they could afford it. I don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Thompson, who has lived in Ojitos Frios with his wife, Betty, since the 1990s.

In the last year, the Thompsons have needed water trucked in only a couple of times. Rain has met their demands the rest of the time, although they say they have been frugal with their water.

The Thompsons and others have long blamed the city for their water supply problems. Not far from their homes, the city pumps water at one of its wells at Taylor Wells — around 300,000 to 500,000 gallons a day. That water comes from the same aquifer as the residents in the Ojitos Frios subdivision and Romeroville.

For a long time, the city denied that its pumping had any effect, contending that the residents’ drilled scores of wells in a small area, competing for a limited supply of water.  

The city said it needed the water from Taylor Wells. It dramatically increased its pumping at Taylor Wells seven years ago after a court limited the amount of water the city could take from the Gallinas River, the main water source. Previously, the city took all it wanted from the river.

In 2008, the city dropped its official position that its pumping had no effect on nearby residents. Then-Utilities Director George DuFour, hired in late 2007, made it clear that the city’s pumping had a big impact on others.

As such, he sharply curtailed pumping at Taylor Wells. Much of the time during DuFour’s reign, the city hardly pumped there, according to numbers from the city’s water plant.

In late 2008, DuFour’s relationship with then-Mayor Tony Marquez soured. In February 2009, the mayor convinced a council majority to fire DuFour for allegedly giving improper billing credits — which DuFour disputed.

A few months after DuFour’s departure, the city increased its pumping at Taylor Wells back to previous levels. But the difference this time is that city officials weren’t denying that the pumping had an effect on residents southwest of town.

City Manager Timothy Dodge, who started in March 2009, said the hydrology shows that there is a connection in the aquifer between Taylor Wells and the nearby residences.

He said the city is making every effort to obtain additional water rights, which he said would alleviate the need for Taylor Wells water.

“We’ve been pumping to meet the demand of the city,” he said.

Councilman Andrew Feldman, a geologist, said the city won’t be able to pump long-term at Taylor Wells. In 20 years, that source of water probably won’t exist at the level it is now, he said.

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The changes in city government seem to have an effect on the Thompsons’ water situation. Retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jack Thompson has kept graphs of his well’s water level. The level improved during DuFour’s time and worsened after the director left, showing that politics downtown may have a geologic effect miles away from city limits.

With wells drying up, residents southwest of town have banded together, forming El Creston Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association. Members are seeking grants to build their own water system, having already received some money for an engineering study.

But Thompson, a member, said drilling a new well would just compete with the city’s well field.

“I’m convinced a catchment system is the way to go. Anything else is a race to the bottom,” he said.

Last year, four residents southwest of town asked County Assessor Elaine Estrada to decrease their homes’ valuations because of the dire water situation. She did so. In the Thompsons’ case, Estrada reduced the value of their sizable home to $22,000. The Thompsons said an earlier market estimate showed their home was worth well over $200,000.

Now their yearly property tax bill will be around $100, down from $1,400, Jack Thompson said.

The county assessor’s office expects many more residents in that area to seek lower valuations this year.

Thompson said this would have a big impact to the local tax base.

“We don’t mind paying taxes at all. But we’re doing this to bring focus to this problem,” he said.

Thompson showed a reporter the four tanks on his property — which have the capacity to hold thousands of gallons of waters. In his basement is the system that purifies the water.

He has tried to make the best of the bad situation.

“This has become a retirement project,” he said.