FARMINGTON — John Silva parked his Subaru in a Farmington trailer park, walked across Gila Street, stepped through an opening in a barbwire fence and placed his hands on top of a graffiti-covered storm drain. He looked down at the two culverts.
"I mean, this is a perfect example," he said last month.
Tumble weeds larger than the two tubes sat piled in clumps upstream in the dry arroyo. A mound of boulders had formed in front of the opening. When the heavy rains come, he said these culverts will flood, as they have in the past, submerging the surrounding land.
He says his land has been flooded and he blames what he says is inadequate city infrastructure.
In 2010 and 2013, monsoon rains pounded the city, washing out roads, eroding culverts, flooding parking lots and causing an estimated $5.5 million in damage, according to city documents.
In both storms Silva, owner of Three Rivers Brewery, filed claims for flooding damages with the city of Farmington. And many other residents filed claims, too, he said.
From the 2013 flooding, City Engineer Nica Westerling said the city received 136 phone calls, and 32 of those were handled as damage claims.
According to a document provided by the city's legal department, there were 201 instances in which city property owners experienced issues from the 2010 and 2013 floods. Some of those property owners filed claims with the city, and others called to inform the Public Works Department of the flooding, Westerling said.
Public works and legal department officials were unable to specify how many of the property owners filed claims seeking reimbursement from the city for damage the two flooding events caused. But City Manager Rob Mayes said a majority were reports.
Claims Manager Ezora Boognl has said the legal department routinely destroys older documents, which included some flood claim documents. She was unavailable for comment on Friday.
Silva believes the city is responsible for his property's flooding damage, but it never paid his claim, he said. He described his claim process with the city as a "battle."
The city ought to be responsible for the damage its out-of-date infrastructure causes its property owners, he said.
"It's caused a lot of people a lot of problems," he said.
But City Attorney Jay Burnham said there are two situations when the city would pay a claim for flood damage. One is if the city failed to maintain its flood-mitigation infrastructure, such as its storm drains. The other is if a property owner is building infrastructure that would benefit the city, such as a detention pond.
"I can't really think of a third," he said, "because if something's caused by rain overwhelming our facilities, that's not a recognizable claim."
According to a memo he wrote to city council, there are three legal principals — based in state law — that apply when the city determines storm water repairs and improvements.
The city cannot spend tax dollars to improve an individual's property if it benefits only that property owner, according to the memo.
The city must conduct the same project for other property owners in similar situations if it improves a single person's land, according to the memo.
And the city cannot be successfully sued for building or not building flood-mitigation infrastructure, according to the memo.
"We do update our facilities," Burnham said, "but future updates of our facilities, as long as they're functioning properly, is not required by the law."
Albuquerque's flood-mitigation infrastructure is more expansive than Farmington's, but he said that is because the city has a taxing authority to exclusively generate funds for those improvements. Funds for Farmington's improvements compete with other projects city-wide, he said.
The city does improve its infrastructure when it has the money, he said.
Since 2010, the city has spent or is planning to spend more than $9.2 million recovering from and preparing for monsoons, according to city documents.
In an early February meeting, city council members approved spending $795,000 to build grated inlets, storm sewers, concrete stream beds, dirt berms and other improvements to the following locations: Tarry Terrace and Greenwood Drive; Villa View Drive; Main Street and Rancho De Animas Circle; Beech Street; Gila Street; Hood Arroyo south of Main Street; Edgecliff Drive; Sierra Vista Drive and Hubbard Road; and Criterion Street.
The city is seeking a company to build detention ponds near the Porter and Carl arroyos, which are estimated to cost $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively, according to city documents.
The city also contracted an engineering firm based in Omaha, Neb., HDR Inc., to examine other options for eliminating flooding of the city's drainages. A preliminary report is expected in August.
The city cannot build every proposed project, Mayes said.
"It would bankrupt the city," he said.