KIRTLAND — Officials are preparing to close a sewage lagoon in Kirtland that created an emergency twice over the past four winters when it threatened to overflow and had to be partially drained to prevent the effluent from reaching the San Juan River.

"At least we have something to look forward to," said Tom Schilz, Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Wastewater Association president.

The association, formally known as Lagoon Limited, uses the lagoon to treat the waste water from 52 active home connections in the Kirtland neighborhood at the end of County Road 6259. But the lagoon was built in 1957, and it was intended for 25 homes.

As a result, the county has had intervene to prevent overflow.

Paula Digby, the secretary of the Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Waste Water Association, stands next to a fence surrounding a wastewater lagoon on Monday in
Paula Digby, the secretary of the Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Waste Water Association, stands next to a fence surrounding a wastewater lagoon on Monday in Kirtland. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

The New Mexico Environment Department is scheduled to close the lagoon on May 20.

By fall, the wastewater association plans to pump the neighborhood's sewage to Station No. 3 at Farmington's Wastewater Treatment Plant, said Paula Digby, association secretary. A lift station will be built next to the lagoon, and it will pump sewage to another lift station along County Road 6100 and into Farmington's station, she said. Homes could then completely disconnect from the lagoon, she said.

Schilz said his company is waiting for easement permission for the sewage extraction system's piping.

The system is still being designed, said Mike Stark, the San Juan County operations officer. Stark hopes it will be completed by the end of February. Construction could take nine months, he said.

The project will cost $3.7 million, according to county documents, and it is the highest ranking project on the county's fiscal year 2015-2019 infrastructure capital improvement plan. Already the county has raised $2.2 million, and it is requesting $1.5 million from the state, according to the document.

"Having a permanent solution is going to be a big deal for folks in that area," Stark said.

Digby grew up in the neighborhood, and she said the lagoon is worse in the winter when the cold air prevents the sewage from evaporating. At least once a year, she said, the wastewater association has to pump and haul away excess sewage. It recently pumped out about 50,000 gallons, she said.

But the media exaggerates the lagoon's conditions, she said. "It doesn't smell bad," she said. "(Although) there's been times is has in 50 years." Sometimes resident's waterlines backup, she said, but that is because they flush tampons or condoms down the toilet.

Stark said that backed-up sewage has overflowed into resident's homes, and the cracked piping has oozed raw sewage onto the ground. "In fact," he said, "one individual got sent to the ER."

This lift station shown Monday will act as an intermediary pump station for the lines that will eventually transfer the sewage from a wastewater lagoon in
This lift station shown Monday will act as an intermediary pump station for the lines that will eventually transfer the sewage from a wastewater lagoon in Kirtland to Station No. 3 at Farmington's Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

Also, the lagoon sits about 300 feet away from the San Juan River, he said. He expects polluted ground water has seeped into the river.

Digby said the neighborhood is excited for a solution.

"It's all happening on paper," she said. "Until the shovel goes into the ground and there's ground broken, it's kind of hard for residents to know what's happening."

Digby also noted that the wastewater association and the county in late October received the Catalina Muniz Award from the New Mexico State Infrastructure Committee for its management of the lagoon.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dan_J_Schwartz on Twitter.