PRC expresses frustration with AV Water

Harvest Gold residents received their first delivery of bottled water on Tuesday following the PRC's order on Nov. 23 that AV Water begin delivering potable water to its customers

Hannah Grover
AV Water employee Joe Moya adds pumice to a filtration system on Sept. 27 in the Harvest Gold subdivision, east of Bloomfield.
  • The PRC ordered AV Water to start delivering bottled water to Harvest Gold residents in November
  • Harvest Gold residents received their first delivery of bottled water this week
  • AV Water has violated four PRC orders, which has frustrated commissioners and customers
  • PRC chairwoman Valerie Espinoza says "the hammer is going to come down hard" next week

FARMINGTON — This week, after six months without drinking water, residents of the Harvest Gold subdivision received their first delivery of bottled water.

The subdivision located east of Bloomfield has been on a boil water advisory since June. On Nov. 23, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission ordered AV Water Co. — which owns the water system — to deliver potable water to the residents. The water deliveries were supposed to start the next day. PRC chairwoman Valerie Espinoza said she wanted residents to have potable water for Thanksgiving.

When reached by phone after a regular PRC meeting today in Santa Fe, Espinoza said she is upset that the company waited two weeks before delivering water.

“I go home every day and I think about (the Harvest Gold residents) as I am washing dishes,” she said.

Both Espinoza and Commissioner Sandy Jones expressed interest in conferring with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office to determine if criminal charges could be pressed against AV Water. The PRC does not have the legal authority to press criminal charges, however the attorney general’s office could.

New Mexico Public Regulation Commission members from left, Valarie Espinoza, Sandy Jones and Karen Montoya on Oct. 12 inspect sludge gathered by AV Water Co. customer Roberta DeField. The PRC held its meeting that month at  at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec.

“These people are getting raped by this company’s lack of providing basic services,” Espinoza said.

In an emailed statement, James Hallinan, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the office "fully reviews every complaint received and investigates where appropriate. It is the policy of this office to neither confirm nor deny an existence of an investigation, in order to preserve the integrity of our investigations and protect those individuals not charged with a crime. "

The commission will meet again on Wednesday.

“I would expect that next week the hammer is going to come down hard,” Espinoza said.

On Friday, Cascade Bottled Water Co. in Farmington received a call from AV Water attorney Germaine Chappelle asking for water deliveries to AV Water's customers. Daryl Leeper, Cascade’s owner, said the company knew that residents in the subdivision east of Bloomfield had been without potable water since June.

“We wanted to do anything we can to help them,” he said.

After negotiating a contract with AV Water, Cascade received a list of the customers on Monday and started delivering water on Tuesday. Leeper said his company was told the deliveries could last up to three months. During that time, AV Water will continue to look for ways to get the subdivision off of the boil water advisory, Chappelle said.

The New Mexico Environment Department issued the boil water advisory due to high turbidity levels that could lead to contamination by microorganisms. The high turbidity was caused by a deteriorating water delivery system and treatment plant.

“I am very grateful for the water,” said Robin Stephens, who lives in the Harvest Gold subdivision.

While he was grateful for the water, he said it will be hard for some people to lift the five-gallon bottles. Each residence was given four five-gallon bottles of water. Cascade told residents in a letter that they could contact the company and switch to three-gallon bottles. Leeper said the customers who choose to go with three-gallon bottles will receive less water.

Leeper said customers who need more water than they are currently receiving will need to call Fred Whistle, the general manager of AV Water, for permission to increase the amount of water Cascade is delivering. However, Leeper said Cascade is willing to deliver as much water as the customers need as long as AV Water approves it.

The contract between AV Water and Cascade also does not include dispensers for the water. Leeper said the bottles can be used without dispensers, but it may be hard for some people to use them without dispensers due to the weight of the bottles. Cascade has offered residents options to purchase ceramic crocks or hand pumps or rent dispensers.

Stephens said he is frustrated that the subdivision has been on a boil water advisory for more than six months and it took AV Water about two weeks after the PRC issued the order to begin delivering bottled water.

“I think that all water companies should have a contingency plan in place,” he said.

Company officials say AV Water was not financially able to deliver water. Espinoza described the water deliveries as a “minor gesture” from the company considering its failure to deliver a service.

She said the company is in violation of four other PRC orders.

“They’re pretty much sticking their nose up at us,” she said.

During today's meeting, she said fines do not work as incentive for AV Water to comply with orders.

“We also know that fines don’t work because they’ve been fined by us and fined by (New Mexico Environment Department) and fined again by NMED,” she said.

Russell Fisk, counsel for the PRC, said the company’s controlling partner Mark Iuppenlatz testified during a PRC hearing in October in Aztec that he did not care how much the company was fined because AV Water would not be able to pay it.

The PRC issued a $1 million fine on Nov. 23 that named Mark Iuppenlatz, the company and other companies attached to it. Iuppenlatz was given 30 days to submit information showing why he should be excluded from the fine.

“He may care if it’s against him individually,” Fisk said during the meeting today.

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