Jon Austria/The Daily TimesThe Kirtland lagoon on Tuesday.
Jon Austria/The Daily Times The Kirtland lagoon on Tuesday. (Jon Austria)
KIRTLAND — A festering lagoon in Kirtland threatens about 75 households in the area and could end up leaking sewage into the San Juan River.

The lagoon "is less than 300 feet from the San Juan River, so it's not just a local issue," said Mike Stark San Juan County's operations officer.

A lagoon flood would be a regional catastrophe, he said, because the San Juan River feeds into the Colorado River system.

For some residents, however, the sewer problems hit closer to home. Running water is a blessing and a curse. Daily chores can bring a foul surprise liquid sewage bubbling up into their toilets and bathtubs.

A small puddle of grey, soapy water stood outside Jennifer McGregor's mobile home in Kirtland. She stood outside dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt looking at the water as it made rivulets in the hard-packed earth.

"It's a train wreck back there," she said. "My landlord has had to get us a Porta-Potty. This is stressful."

The lagoon was built in 1957 to treat sewage from about 25 homes, but as more homes were added to the system it was overwhelmed. The location and aging sewer lines have added to the problems.

The fate of those households near County Road 6259 lies with the timing of a multi-million-dollar plan to pump the sewage to Farmington.

The aging Kirtland Lagoon will be shut down by the New Mexico Environment Department on May 20, 2014.


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In the mean time, county officials are working with the state, residents and the Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Wastewater Association representatives to try and find a solution.

"Our county commission has assisted with emergency pumping, repairs, electrical upgrades," Stark said. "We're not in the utility business, but the (county) commission has taken the approach that we're going to help as much as we legally can."

In addition, the county worked on a Community Development Block Grant to assist residents near the lagoon, he said.

The $41,000 grant allowed the county to develop a preliminary engineering report for upgrading the sewer system.

"It takes time to put together a grant application," Stark said. "We're going after funding, and it moves us one step closer. We want to have a cooperative effort to have a permanent fix."

At a recent lagoon meeting board members were talking about a one or two year wait before a pump station could be put in, McGregor said.

"We've had four different plumbers come by and they've all said that the lagoon is too full," McGregor said. "They can't do anything about it because (the lagoon) is packed full of sludge. This is getting so out of control. If we don't pay the sewage bill, they shut off the water. It's ridiculous. We live from paycheck to paycheck."

The sewage problem, it appears, has driven at least one resident out of the neighborhood.

Larry McKay, who now lives in Farmington, said he was never able to live in the Kirtland home he bought.

The foundation, the soil underneath and the groundwater have all been contaminated by sewage, he said.

McKay went by his former property on Tuesday.

He pushed open the door revealing a dark, musty interior. The floor was torn up revealing a broken, twisted, rusting sewer pipe and its fetid payload.

San Juan County condemned the home, McKay said, but not before he had installed a new roof and sewer line.

"I had to live in my travel trailer," he said. "It isn't something that just took place. The sewage is going somewhere. You buy something to live in ... this is all shot."

Stark said he sympathizes with residents.

"I understand," he said. "If I lived down there, I could say this isn't moving fast enough, that it's a daily struggle."

A solution could be on its way.

David Bishop, of the state environment department's Construction Programs Bureau, confirmed that the county has been working with Wilson and Company, based in Rio Rancho, to produce the preliminary engineering plan.

The plan calls for reconstructing a gravity sewer line system that will discharge into a pump station to be built just north of the lagoon, he said. That project will cost about $3.3 million. 

The pump station will transport the sewage to a lift station further north in Kirtland that will send the sewage to Farmington for treatment.

An alternate, phased plan approved by the environment department calls for building a pump station for $1.8 million if insufficient funds are available for the full sewer line renovation, Bishop said.

As officials and residents wait for a solution, however, there remains only one point of clarity. The lagoon will be emptied and filled with dirt on May 20, 2014, and if no pumping plan is in place, those homes will have no place to legally discharge their sewage.

Greg Yee may be reached at gyee@daily-times.com; 564-4606. Follow him on Twitter @GYeeDT