San Juan College, NMED partner to develop a program to train water system operators

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the New Mexico Environment Department a $200,000 grant to assist as San Juan College develops and implements a water utility operator recruitment and training program and also address challenges associated with COVID-19, according to a press release from NMED.

This grant comes as the water utility industry faces a potential shortage of operators, who are tasked with ensuring clean drinking water reaches customers. Water system operators perform regular drinking water safety tests, ensuring the water customers receive is safe to drink. They also do a wide range of other tasks, including checking gauges and monitoring water pressure. 

“With more than 33% of current certified water treatment operators being over the age of 60, it is critical that we replace retiring workers with skilled operators and keep our water supply safe,” said Alicia Corbell, the dean of the San Juan College School of Energy, in the press release. “The funding from this grant will allow us to make our water treatment and wastewater management training widely available.”

Lorenzo Reyes, the dean of the Center for Workforce Training and Economic Development at San Juan College, said there are more than 40 water users associations in San Juan County which are required to meet safe drinking water standards. The partnership with NMED will provide training to existing operators as well as people entering the industry, Reyes said.

And officials say the new program will provide much-needed jobs in the region as it faces economic uncertainty amid changes in the energy industry. According to the project description available on the EPA website, recruitment for the program will target young people and those who previously worked in sectors like the oil and gas industry but are now unemployed.

The grant is intended to ensure there are certified operators that can be sent to oversee drinking and wastewater systems in rural northwestern New Mexico, including tribal communities.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the Ute Mountain Tribe both submitted letters of support for the grant and, according to the press release, those letters of support emphasized the need for utility operators in the Four Corners region.

“Safe drinking water is a basic human right,” said NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. “Ensuring safe drinking water as a profession is a rewarding and noble career path that serves the greater good. This partnership will help pave the way for tomorrow’s drinking water professionals by investing in them today.”

The funding is part of the EPA’s State Environmental Justice Cooperative Agreement Program.

According to a project summary available on the EPA website, there have been more than 5,100 health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the region in the past 10 years.

“Approximately 86% of public water systems in the state serve populations under 1,000 where the lack of skilled operators and knowledgeable board members are often tied to noncompliance with public health standards,” the project description states. “One of the most common contributors to noncompliance at small water utilities is the lack of a certified operator.”

San Juan College and NMED were one of 10 applicants to receive funding, and the EPA gave special consideration to projects that would address the impacts of COVID-19 on communities that have environmental justice concerns. The lack of potable water in parts of the Four Corners region exacerbated the pandemic’s impacts.

Each project received $200,000.

 A full list of projects and their descriptions can be found at

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: