IF YOU GO

What: Public meeting held by the New Mexico Environment Department

Where: San Juan County Council Chambers, 100 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec

When 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24

More info: Contact Jim Winchester at 505-827-0314 or the Ground Water Quality Bureau at 505-827-2900.

AZTEC — A lagoon that would collect sewage from a proposed recreational vehicle park 7 miles northeast of Aztec has nearby residents crying foul.

Six weeks ago, Tom Payne, who owns property off U.S. Highway 550 where the park and wastewater lagoon are to be installed, applied for a discharge permit with the New Mexico Environment Department's Ground Water Quality Bureau.

According to the application, the RV park will release up to 2,240 gallons per day of domestic wastewater into a "lined lagoon system for disposal by evaporation."

Public notices were mailed to residents, and an ad was published in The Daily Times on June 6.

After receiving calls from residents and area officials, the bureau has scheduled a public meeting next Wednesday to address concerns related to the permit application.

"To date, we've received around 19 complaints and questions from interested parties over the permit application," said Robert George, a domestic waste official at the bureau. "As part of the application process, we want to hear comments and questions from the public."

Payne declined to comment until after the public meeting.

The bureau currently oversees about 1,000 active permits throughout the state. Fifty are for evaporative systems like the one planned at the RV park.

One interested party who plans to attend Wednesday' meeting is Mary Girardi, who lives in the Dutchman's Hill subdivision near Cedar Hill.

"What we've been through in recent years over water quality and supply, it makes us very concerned," she said.

Residents like Girardi have struggled to get safe, reliable water. In 2008, the state Public Regulation Commission forced Dutchman's Hill Water Company to sell its control of water to North Star Domestic Water Consumers and Mutual Sewer Works Coop. Since then, water has been on tap for the roughly 115 residents in the area, but at a price.

"It took forever, years of having rusty, sludgy water or no water at all. Then we joined North Star with a $3,000 membership fee, had to purchase a new water meter that cost $2,500 and our monthly bill quadrupled," Girardi said. "You could say that we're wary about water in this community."

The RV park is situated less than a mile from a North Star intake pump.

Ongoing problems -- sewage polluted water, high costs and odor -- near the Kirtland lagoon give Girardi little faith in the lagoon system. Officials at the state's Environment Department admit the Kirtland lagoon is a major problem. Built in 1957, it was designed to only handle a couple dozen residents and was installed before the current regulations were put into place

Girardi has discussed gathering signatures to petition the lagoon with her neighbor, Jim Dahlberg.

"We are concerned that if for any reason the lagoon fails, it would put raw sewage right into the river. It could be a real mess," Dahlberg said. "We'll see what we learn at the meeting, but I expect that we'll go forward with the petition."

Dahlberg is also concerned the bureau lacks enough power to do more than approve the lagoon.

"It's a little bit frustrating since once the application is made, it's not a matter of if but when," he said.

According to officials at the bureau, they are responsible for permitting and ensuring regulations are followed. A permit owner is responsible for serving as or hiring a licensed operator to conduct monthly water samples to comply with regulations. The bureau can impose penalties for as much as $15,000 per day and file court injunctions.

"A discharger has to report to us on an ongoing basis with water samples and flow volumes in quarterly reports," George said. "We do an on-site visit every other year, and every permit is up for renewal every five years."

Many schools and state parks use similar lagoon systems, a common and effective means of handling waste water, George said. The ground under synthetic lagoons is lined with a protective plastic coating that is designed to last 20 to 25 years.

"There's no problem with the technology," George said. "Problems we have seen have to do more with who's running them. Some are well-run and there are others that aren't well-run."

Girardi is concerned that not all owners and operators of lagoon systems are honest stewards.

"That's a running joke. If you end up with a bad sample, you can manipulate the sample," Girardi said. "The bureau's understaffed. Maybe Mr. Payne will be a perfect operator and everything will be wonderful. I guess we'll see."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.