'More valuable than gold.' Retired educator chronicles history of water co-op in new book

Carol Cloer relates challenges, political intrigue behind project

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Author Carol Cloer outlines the history of the effort to bring potable water to the West Hammond district south of Bloomfield in her new booklet, "Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink."
  • Cloer is the former assistant superintendent of the Bloomfield School District and retired director of the New Mexico Highlands University center at San Juan College.
  • Her late husband Harold was one of the founders of the West Hammond Domestic Water Cooperative Association District.
  • Her new booklet "Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink" covers the history of the organization.

FARMINGTON — The act of poring over 50-year-old minutes from meetings of a fledgling domestic water cooperative might not seem like the most exciting way to spend your time.

But to Carol Cloer, it was riveting reading.

"Water is more valuable than gold now," she said, describing the reality of life in the Southwest. "And it's just going to be more and more and more valuable."

Cloer, the former assistant superintendent of the Bloomfield School District and retired director of the New Mexico Highlands University center at San Juan College, had undergone knee replacement surgery a couple of years ago and found herself restricted to an easy chair in her living room for 10 hours a day. She also had resolved to run for the board of the West Hammond Domestic Water Cooperative Association, the organization her late husband Harold had helped found a half-century earlier to help bring potable water to the residents of an area south of Bloomfield.

So Cloer settled in with a stack of dusty documents and began reading. What she found surprised her, including the ways in which those minutes seemed to bring her husband back to life.

"I felt like it was a vicarious conversation with Harold because he was in the minutes, so it was kind of a nice historical perspective," she said.

Cloer had intended to review the minutes simply to bring herself up to speed on the history of the organization as she sought to join the board. But the more she read, the more concerned she became that the colorful history of the association would be lost as those associated with its founding passed on.

She decided to address that by writing a short history of the organization, a task she finished early this year. "Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink" chronicles how a group of five men — Cloer's husband among them — devoted years of their life to making the co-op a reality as they battled political intrigue, government red tape and other challenges.

Carol Cloer marvels at the foresight and determination of the men who brought potable water to the West Hammond district 50 years ago, creating a system that now serves nearly 5,000 people.

How the West Hammon Domestic Water Cooperative began

When they began meeting in the early 1970s, the group — made up of Earl Hickam, Charles Keller, F.N. Cornett, Wallace Taft and Harold Cloer, all residents of the West Hammond area along County Road 5500 southwest of Bloomfield — did so with the goal of bringing clean drinking water to their families and to the dozen or so other families in the area. Everyone who lived in their district had to haul in their drinking water, use a cistern or drill a well, which usually yielded discolored, unappealing water.

As Cloer writes, West Hammond was home to a mere 17 families in 1971 when the five men put together a board for the association, marking its official inception. Those 17 families had an average of 3.8 members each, meaning the population the co-op would serve was approximately 65 people.

A half century later, it is readily apparent to even a casual observer how important the work of the organization was to the district's future. Today, Cloer writes, the West Hammond Domestic Water Cooperative Association has 1,269 meters, serving an estimated 4,822 folks.

Cloer's booklet details how the effort to bring clean water to the district proceeded in fits and starts. While Cloer herself was present for much of that, she said she missed many of the particulars as she pursued advanced degrees, launched her career as an educator, raised her family and even mounted an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in the 1990s.

It was only when she went back and read through the minutes that she gained a fuller understanding of how complicated the situation was and how committed the five founders were to their mission.

"It was intrigue and political conflict," she said, noting how various state agencies and other water-related organizations all became involved, each one seemingly intent on staking out its own turf and controlling the various grants that were used to build the project. Her efforts to untangle those squabbles are at the heart of Cloer's booklet.

Nevertheless, the five founders apparently never became discouraged, even in the face of all that bureaucratic infighting.

"They hung in there," she said.

Carol Cloer stands over the irrigation ditch that runs through her Cloer Hay Farm southwest of Bloomfield on May 17, 2021.

She related how one early victory came during a 1970s New Mexico campaign stop. Gov. Bruce King was set to appear at a reception for Democratic candidates the Cloers were hosting at their home, nestled on the 100-acre Cloer Hay Farm. Cloer laughed as she recalled how King, a rancher, bolted from his vehicle as soon as it pulled up in their driveway and headed to their nearby barn to inspect their alfalfa.

Harold Cloer quickly joined King and seized the opportunity to tell him about the coop's request for Federal Housing Administration funding for the project. King later signed off on the request, with the Cloers believing that conversation helped pave the way for approval of the funding and provide crucial momentum toward the construction of the water pipeline.

Carol Cloer credits Hickam and Keller from the group of founders with doing much of the heavy lifting, and she said several area families deserve recognition for the way they donated their personal resources — land and money — to the project to get it built. And as the system matured, grew and came to serve not just dozens, but hundreds of families, Cloer said the it was the longtime leadership of Nick Ashcroft in the 1990s and early 2000s that helped shape it into the force it is today.

Cloer said she doubts such a massive undertaking could be brought to fruition today by a group of people with no formal training. She marvels at the foresight and determination of the five founders, explaining how none of them, her husband included, could have known what they were getting into.

"We were just little high school graduates," she said. "To think of the time and energy they put in for no pay, they just had community commitment and interests in mind. … The amount of time they gave to that, especially Earl (Hickam) and Charles (Keller), it was amazing. They were progressive thinkers."

Cloer's book is available for purchase for $10 through the San Juan County Historical Society, at the gift shop at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park or at the Artifacts Gallery in downtown Farmington.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.