“Life without water would be weird cuz people would start dying. Sum people would go crazy, and I would go crazy if there wasn’t water. There’d be no more Kool-aid or pop. The world would come to an end. People would start dying one by one. Dying bodies all over. Dead.” –Cody, former eighth grade student at St. Francis School, Lumberton, NM, Sept. 2009
Lumberton, New Mexico
Elevation, known: 7,318 ft.
Population: according to the 2010 census 73.
Water: Sometimes Lumberton has it; sometimes it doesn’t.
Lumberton is in northern New Mexico, in the high desert. It’s not Santa Fe, and it’s not Taos. It’s 127 miles north of Santa Fe.
There’s a baseball field, a cemetery, and when you turn on the main paved street of town, County Road 356, you come to St. Francis church and the school. In between both there used to be a giant sand colored water tank on wheels known as “the water buffalo.” Across from the school, on the other side of the arroyo, a crumbling water tower sits.
“By the way, in case anyone hasn’t told you, don’t drink the water,” I was told when I first came to Lumberton as a teacher six years ago.
A piece of paper that hung in the school bathroom titled “Boil Water Advisory” advised residents to “boil the water for five minutes before drinking, cooking, dishwashing and bathing. The presence of E. coli in water indicates that the water may have been in contact with sewage or animal wasters, and could contain disease-causing organisms.”
So I didn’t drink the water. Like most in town, I’d go to the water buffalo carrying jugs to fill up with potable water.
But the quality of the water wasn’t the only problem. The water would also stop running.
“Since I’ve been here, the water’s been off two times, but I think it was scheduled,” second grade teacher Kyle Lara says.
“No, it wasn’t,” eighth grade teacher Rohan Oberai interrupts.
“That’s what I was told.”
Rohan twists his hair and shakes his head. For Rohan, the water’s been out for several hours on two separate occasions.
The longest period without running water I experienced was one month. Students of all ages sloshed buckets of water to pour down the toilets to make them flush.
“Someone was stealing it the first time and drought the second,” Rohan continues. And he says it matter-of-factly. “I don’t know the reasons. You hear so many different stories, you just go with it. Don’t believe any of it, just go with it.”
Before Lumberton had a water system in the 30s and 40s, when the town was booming from the lumber and mining industries, people would take barrels and buckets to the river and haul water from the Navajo River. They’d use the water for everything, no filtration, just straight from the river.
In 1949, the Lumberton Mutual Consumer Water Association (MCWA) was formed and drilled the first well. Most wells drilled in the area have too much sulfur to be drinkable, or, they eventually run dry. In 1967, the well went dry. A replacement well was subsequently drilled including a 20,000 gallon storage tank, and 12,280 linear feet of distribution line was installed. The water was not always clean or reliable, but until 1985 there was no intensive involvement by the state. In 1985, emergency was declared and the water declared unfit to drink. Brown water was known to occasionally come out of the faucet into the early 2000s. Operations were moved, and Lumberton MCWA drilled two wells near the Navajo River. In 1991, the first water treatment system was installed—an infiltration gallery with a conical sedimentation device.
However, the water quality was not considered safe by the state, and in 1999 the New Mexico Environment Department issued the first boil advisory to Lumberton MCWA; the advisory stayed in effect until the fall of 2009.
“NMED was unable to verify the safety of Lumberton MDWCA’s water supply because the association failed to provide water samples for testing,” states the Review of Selected Capital Outlay Projects, November 20, 2009.
In the late 90s, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency sent the water buffalo to Lumberton. Also during this time, Bill Lindner and his wife retired and moved to Lumberton. “I knew a little bit about the water situation, but we were pretty well committed at that point,” Lindner says. A plant had just been built with grant money from the state and USDA. The plant was housed in a tent next to the river.
After arriving and settling in Lumberton, Lindner became the Association’s bookkeeper.
With the new plant in the tent, new distribution pipes were built little by little, also using grant money from the state. Throughout this process, water availability went off and on.
“We had clean water when the plant was running right, but there were difficulties with it,” Lindner says.
One difficulty was not having a licensed operator to run the plant.
“The Association attempted to save money by having the plant operated by the Board members, who did not have adequate knowledge to operate it successfully,” a letter written to the NMED by president of the Lumberton MDWCA Elma Garcia states.
Lindner says that the state and the town argued back and forth on this point. The state was demanding that Lumberton raise its water rates to pay for a water plant operator; the town was refusing because the people couldn’t afford it.
“Then, in frustration of the plant not working, it was decided to run river water, with no purification, through the pipes,” Lindner says.
After this, the NMED kept a closer watch on Lumberton, and in May 2007 the state, under the auspices of the Sanitary Projects Act, took over operation and management of the Association.
Rates were raised, and the town was not happy. People received bills larger than what they could pay. During the month of September 2009, when water ran for only a couple days, people still received water bills, some for upwards of $100. Stories of shots being fired at the meter reader circulated speedily through the town.
Despite the backlash from the consumers, Lindner says raising the rates worked. The plant runs.
However, he and his wife still don’t drink water from the tap and don’t use a home filtration system. They go down to Albuquerque or Farmington and stock up on bottles and jugs of water. And they’re not alone in town. Those who have been in town for several years, or maybe even close to their whole life, don’t depend on the water system. They say it’s good, that there is drinkable, running water in Lumberton. But underneath the statement is the old way of life, reflective of an era in which the Lumberton MDWCA consumers learned to never depend on running water.
But that’s Lumberton. If you’ve been around any amount of time, you’re used to it, even if you’re frustrated. And during the mass for the feast day of St. Francis, the entire town of Lumberton, young and old, new and native, can be heard singing the Canticle of the Sun, “Praise for the rain that waters our field, and blesses our crops so all the earth yields, from death unto life her mystery revealed springs forth in joy of life.”