Rewind: Community closes Kirtland sewage lagoon

Steve Garrison
Tom Schilz, president of the Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Wastewater Association, talks about the construction of the septic pump facility that has taken the place of the Kirtland sewage lagoon on Thursday  in Kirtland.

Editor's note: The Daily Times' annual “Rewind” series revisits stories we have reported on over the past year. To read more “Rewind” stories, go to daily-times.com. 

FARMINGTON – After six years, three funding cycles and a threat to blow it up, the 60-year-old Kirtland sewage lagoon has been decommissioned.

The lagoon, built in 1957 to store waste for about 25 homes in a Kirtland neighborhood near County Road 6259, was identified by San Juan County officials as a potential threat to the safety of residents in 2009, according to County Operating Officer Mike Stark.

Stark said the lagoon, which is about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, was brimming with waste, which threatened to spill into the nearby river. Waste was also backing up into the neighborhood and causing puddles of filth to pool in residents' yards.

However, it took several years and $3.1 million to finally drain the lagoon and hook up the 51 homes in the neighborhood to a sewer system, a project that is now almost complete.

"I've been on this project since day one," Stark said. "And finally, we are seeing the fruits of our labor."

Stark said the lagoon first came to the attention of county officials in 2009 after a resident in the neighborhood, Larry McKay, threatened to blow it up with explosives.

Stark said McKay, who died in December 2014, was fed up with the lagoon, which was backing up and causing wastewater to flood his property. McKay told The Daily Times in March 2009 sewage had flooded his home, causing extensive damage.

"I'm sure my house will probably be condemned because it's flooded underneath the house," McKay said in 2009. "And the guy up above me, his whole backyard — I mean, it was full."

Stark said that while he would not suggest residents threaten such action (McKay's threat was investigated by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office), it did get the attention of county officials.

Most of the wastewater in the Kirtland sewage lagoon has been drained and the lagoon has been decommissioned.

"If it wasn't for Mr. McKay coming to the county, we probably wouldn't have pursued it, at least as aggressively," Stark said.

Stark said the lagoon was technically not the county's problem. It was a private wastewater system managed at the time by Lagoon Limited, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1982. The corporation collected user fees and applied those fees toward the lagoon's maintenance — at least, in theory.

But Tom Schilz said the corporation didn't even have a billing system when he was elected president in the late 2000s, and most user accounts were delinquent. He said one of his first actions upon becoming president was hiring the Lower Valley Water Users Association to collect user fees for Lagoon Limited, which resulted in the collection of approximately $1,500 a month that could be applied to managing the lagoon.

But that was nowhere near enough money to fix or replace the infrastructure itself, according to Schilz, and the community alone couldn't afford to decommission the lagoon.

"These aren't the richest people in the county," Schilz said, pointing out that the residents relied on a sewage lagoon system to treat waste because more attractive methods were too expensive.

In 2012, the New Mexico Environment Department provided Lagoon Limited — which was reformed into a domestic nonprofit, the Lower Valley Mutual Domestic Wastewater Association — a $90,000 grant and $86,000 10-year loan to fund an engineering report for the project.

By then, the San Juan County chief executive officer had twice declared a state of emergency due to concerns that the sewage pond would overflow and contaminate the San Juan River.

Stark said the declaration was necessary because of the anti-donation clause in the New Mexico Constitution, which prohibits a municipality from providing a donation to any private corporation, except during a state of emergency.

With the declaration, the county could thus fund the removal of approximately 150,000 gallons of waste from the private lagoon, which, according to Schilz, lowered the sewage level by only a few inches.

The lagoon did pose a threat to surface and groundwater in the community, Stark said. Limited Lagoon’s discharge permit was imperiled as a result. The New Mexico Environment Department told Lagoon Limited officials in 2011 the community would need to stop discharging wastewater into the lagoon or be found out of compliance, according to the corporation’s discharge permit renewal.

In 2013, the San Juan County legislative delegation obtained $2 million in capital outlay funds to decommission the lagoon. In 2014, the delegation secured another $996,000.

Construction on the decommission project began in April. Consolidated Constructors received a nearly $2.6 million bid from the county to install a pumping station at the lagoon and pipes to connect the neighborhood to existing sewage lines, allowing the sewage to be pumped to Farmington.

Schilz said Thursday the lagoon has been pumped mostly dry, and the neighborhood's sewage is now being sent to Farmington's wastewater treatment plant.

The Kirtland sewage lagoon, seen here on Thursday in Kirtland, has been pumped almost dry and has been replaced by a septic pump.

The lagoon will be filled with dirt in the spring, according to Schilz, and the Lower Valley Water Users Association will take over operation of the new pumping system.

"It took a lot of people, a community," Schilz said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.