By Megan Myscofski
David Trujillo, Sr. stood in front of the fire station he used to lead and gestured to the peaks over Truchas, a town of under 300 people that sits on a jagged piece of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over 8,000 feet above sea level.
“See those peaks up there? Years ago, I used to go three times in the summer. Horses. Little creek like that, you can get 20 fish in a flash,” he said.
He’s 81 now, and his son, current Truchas Fire Department Chief David Trujillo, Jr., said he’s left some big shoes to fill.
“He’s a social worker by trade, retired, and then he became the postmaster here in the town. He was running the fire department and then running the mutual domestic system,” David Jr. said.
Today, David Sr. is still the secretary treasurer for the Truchas Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, which provides the town with clean water and deals with storm drainage and wastewater.
People call him with all kinds of problems because they know he’s the most knowledgeable person in town. And he carries paperwork with him, like a grant application for a few thousand dollars, to work on when he has a spare minute.
He still manages and collects bills for the water system, sometimes bringing a metal detector when the snow on the mountains is too high to find water meters.
David Jr. said his father has pushed both him and his brother to take on the work he does – from the fire department to the water association – for most of their lives.
At the same time, he knows from watching his father that the work is all-consuming.
“We give him a hard time, say, ‘no, no, no,’ but we realize that if we don’t do it, who’s gonna take it over?” David Jr. asks. “The reality is, nobody wants to take it over. Nobody has stepped up yet.”
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 is set to put a half a billion dollars into water infrastructure in New Mexico. Getting that money, however, takes work and expertise that cities like Albuquerque or Santa Fe might be prepared for in ways that many small towns are not.
That could stand in the way of many New Mexico communities getting money they need to update their water systems. Many, like the one in Truchas, need the money for repairs and upgrades that cost well beyond what the town’s budget can afford.
David Sr. and David Jr. said they need to drill more wells and automate aspects of the system. If possible, they’d like to combine the work they’re doing with neighboring towns to streamline things, but that all takes money and time they don’t have.
That’s why they don’t have plans to go after infrastructure act funds.
Many water systems like theirs are run by staff that are sometimes paid, sometimes volunteers, who often don’t have the time or know-how to fill out grant and loan applications.
“In many ways, it just seems like the system is set up so that these small utilities fail,” said Ben Warner, a professor at the University of New Mexico who studies water governance and climate change. He has spoken to hundreds of people who work on water systems across the state and said the work is thankless, daunting and hard to move on from because few people want to do it.
“It’s just one more thing that you have to do on top of your full-time job, and family and whatever else that you do,” he said.
People working on the water systems are expected to meet reporting and quality standards despite a lack of funding or capacity.
Warner said it is common for retirees, like David Sr., to take on this work since they have more time for it. A lot of the state systems are digital, which can be a tough learning curve for some people to navigate.
The New Mexico Environment Department offers support for small water systems, like technical assistance and funding. But Warner said many small communities can’t access it.
“The state has allowed those departments to atrophy. They’re massively underfunded,” Warner said.
He also said the relationship between the state and small systems is precarious. People working with water feel the state only comes to tell them what they’re doing wrong and doesn’t offer much support.
That creates bad blood between the people doing this work and the departments that enforce regulations. It also means that when state agencies built to help support small water systems do reach out, they are met with distrust.
“In New Mexico, generally a lot of the state would be considered disadvantaged. They’re very rural. They’re very isolated. They don’t have a lot of resources,” Southwest Environmental Finance Center Director Heather Himmelberger said.
Her department works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help communities get the money needed for projects. It recently received $4 million to support communities with help to get infrastructure act funds.
“President Biden set a goal under the Justice 40 initiative that 40% of the benefit of the federal funds would go to disadvantaged communities. It’s not 100% defined exactly what that means,” she said.
Himmelberger and her team are reaching out directly to communities that they hear have water issues. She said she’s never seen this much money being put into outreach for a federal program like this, but it doesn’t mean everything can get fixed, or that everyone will take it.
“If you utter the word loan people do get scared,” she said.
She said a lot of this money comes at least partially as a loan, even if it’s only a quarter or 10% of the money they could receive.
“Part of that is just to spread the money around, and part of that is so that the community has an interest in the project,” she said.
Back in the fire station in Truchas, David Jr. said he and his brother will take on the work at the water system, but with changes, because they want to see it become more sustainable.
Either way, he’s been watching his father make things work for the community for a long time, from finding buried water meters to keeping the fire truck running.
He hopes some of those changes will make going after money easier to make the town’s water safer and the job less stressful.
“When I was a little boy, I used to go with him because I knew he had a fire, so I’d jump in and I remember the thing sometimes wouldn’t even start,” David Jr. said. “But we’d get it started.”
Megan Myscofski is a reporter with KUNM’s Poverty and Public Health Project. This coverage is a collaboration with KUNM and is part of a series made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license.
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