The county's "trash force" consists of an understaffed team of county employees and inmate laborers that clear illegal dump sites in their spare time.
Charles Barron and Clarence Jones with the county public works department, drove four inmate workers to a dump site near Flora Vista off County Road 3535 on Nov. 8.
The site was one of many scattered throughout the county. A land crisscrossed by rutted dirt roads, and dotted with trailer homes in various states of disrepair, deep arroyos carved by flash floods and the windswept hardness of the mesas and basin floor, desolate and beautiful in the cold morning light.
Down those roads, shattered beer bottles, rusting metal, construction debris, couches, used diapers, abandoned cars, heaps of household trash bags and other discarded remnants of society are left to scatter in the wind or leach into the soil.
"I've been doing this almost 16 years," Barron said. "You pick almost any dirt road, drive it and you'll find a site."
Barron and Jones stopped their trucks.
The site was small but filled with rusting metal — paint cans, old mail boxes, cans of soup, bits of wire. It had been there for years; buried in runoff, eroded and buried again.
The county has two crews for highway work and three other crews for road work, Barron said.
Although these crews clean up dump sites, the efforts are secondary to their main obligations such as fixing potholes and a cleanup program that helps residents remove refuse from their property. No crew is dedicated to picking up trash at the countless illegal dump sites around the county, Barron said, only the trash force.
"It's one of the jobs we do just when we have time, on slow days," he said.
On this early November day, the inmates do not have the rakes or pitchforks they usually carry.
They hurl gray trash bags into a trailer hitched to the back of Barron's truck. The trailer holds 16 cubic yards of trash. Many times it is full after just one site, Jones said.
Some dump sites are so large, a crew will come in with a Dumpster, he said.
Heavy equipment and free time to work the dump sites are sporadic. San Juan County has yet to find the funding for a permanent trash force.
"It all comes down to the money," Jones said.
And it's tough keep track of the trash on San Juan County's 5,552 total square miles of land, of which 3,600 square miles are tribal, 1,402 square miles federal, 190 square miles state and 359 square miles are privately owned.
The 2011 Analysis of Solid Waste Generation and Management in New Mexico reported that San Juan County produced 99,203 tons of municipal solid waste. The tonnage contained at illegal dump sites is currently unknown and dumping appears to be a growing problem.
"(The sites) have been there for years and years," said Rusty Smith of county Public Works. "People just keep going back to the same dump sites."
And incidents seem to have risen lately, said Sgt. Alan Jamison with the San Juan County Sheriff's Department Special Enforcement Team.
"It is on the rise with the economy being the way it is," he said. "Whole communities would go out and dump. A lot of these dump sites are less than a mile from transfer stations."
The county sheriff's department is now tagging the GPS coordinates of known dump sites in an effort to streamline monitoring, Jamison said.
County and law enforcement efforts to crack down, however, do not seem to deter all dumpers.
"People will dump everything — pay stubs, bank statements," Barron said. "We'll look for names and addresses now."
Barron's and Jones' crew packed up just before 10 a.m. but their work at the site was far from over. Rusting metal still lay strewn along the roadside.
Their services were needed at an official county cleanup site.
The inmates climbed into the two white pickup trucks.
Overhead the early morning clouds began to clear and the November sun came pouring out with the promise of a cold, hard winter.
All around, pieces of metal lay still embedded in the earth, slowly rusting away.
"We'll be back," Barron said. "It'll still be here in a few days."