From his home on the former site of a fire lookout tower, Charlie Marshall has expansive views of the forested hills around the community of Timberon, where he had hoped to spend his early retirement in rural idyll. But over the three decades that he’s lived there, his dreams have gradually unraveled. Today, due to local water shortages and alarming infrastructure failures, the reality is “worse than a Third-World country,” he said.

Marshall had been a police officer in Fort Stockton, Texas, in the mid-1980s, when he was struck by the car of a murder suspect who crashed through a roadblock at 70 miles per hour. 

He underwent multiple surgeries and eventually used a $100,000 settlement from the incident to buy his house in the early 1990s. Since then, he’s had several heart surgeries, lives with a pacemaker and a few stents, and requires supplemental oxygen at times. Though he’s only 67, he refers to himself as elderly. As in, “an elderly disabled man can’t go into the forest to go to the bathroom.” 

Though Marshall’s house is connected to the local water system managed by the Timberon Water and Sanitation District (TWSD), he’s often without a drop. “I have outages two or three days a week,” he said in his living room, where a cougar skin and the taxidermied heads of a deer and a coyote hung on the walls. “You need to drink bottled water, you can’t shower, you can’t flush the toilet — the stench becomes unbearable. And even when it is working, the pressure is dismal.”

Timberon, a scenic outpost in south-central New Mexico with about 900 year-round residents and perhaps three times that many in summer, loses about 85 percent of the water in its system to leaks and breakages. It’s not unusual for repair crews to respond to multiple calls a day. 

Charlie Marshall regularly has no water a few days each week.

“We lost 4.4 million gallons in April,” said TWSD’s manager, Mark Harding, who insists on being called Spanky and says he works over 50 hours a week on a volunteer basis. The situation has become so critical that this summer, when water usage will spike, the community may be forced to accept rolling shutoffs, affecting different parts of town on different days, Harding predicted. “There’s only a finite amount of water we can produce.”

At the cabin-like TWSD headquarters, Harding — bearded, wearing jeans, suspenders and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, his hair pulled back in a long braid — explained that most of Timberon’s water lines are 50 years old and were initially installed incorrectly. 

Some sections have diameters as narrow as 3 or 4 inches — although mains should be at least 6 or 8 inches wide. Much of the system was built with thin-walled Schedule 20 PVC pipe, which is intended for drainage and landscaping uses and isn’t made to withstand the pressures-per-inch in other water supply systems. 

Few, if any, of the lines were bedded in sand or soft dirt, resulting in punctures from rocks. Long stretches that were laid at insufficient depths freeze in winter and can be damaged by road work. The only surprise is that the system has lasted as long as it has.

The land that is now Timberon was purchased from a private owner in 1969 by North American Land Developments Inc., which subdivided and sold off properties. According to Harding, the company clearly cut corners when it installed the water lines, and they urgently need to be replaced. 

Mark “Spanky” Harding, manager of TWSD, volunteers 50 or more hours a week to keep Timberon’s water flowing.

“It’s all wore out,” said Harding, “and we’re just putting Band-Aids on it, dealing with problems as they come up. The fear is that we’re going to get to the point where we can’t keep up with repairs. We’d have to shut the water off,” he says, and everyone would have to haul in their own supply. “I can easily see that happening — that’s the struggle that we’re in.” 

Major leaks can have dramatic and cascading consequences, potentially draining critical water storage tanks, which can take a month each to refill. “We lost 750,000 gallons from one break recently. That’s when it gets scary,” Harding said. “If a tank gets drained, we have to try to refill it, while supplying water to customers, while keeping up with nonstop water losses — and just hoping we don’t have another serious leak in the meantime. 

“We’re lucky we have a good water supply,” he added, referring to a perennial spring and one well. “But we’re wasting an extremely valuable resource.”

A national drain 

Similar scenarios are confounding communities across New Mexico, from towns as large as Truth or Consequences to villages in every nook of the state: Aging water infrastructure is failing and too expensive for local governments to replace. Across the nation, the picture is similarly dire. A report to Congress last year estimated that much of the U.S. water infrastructure needs to be repaired or replaced, potentially costing $744 billion. 

The price to lay new water lines in Timberon alone hovers around $45 million, an impossible sum. The small fraction of property taxes received from Otero County doesn’t add up to much. Infrastructure grants totaling more than $1.1 million have won provisional approval but remain held up by red tape. The state legislature declined an appropriations request this year — according to state Sen. Ron Griggs, “There are always more projects across this huge district than there are dollars available.” 

In the TWSD lobby, a case that once held trophies now displays the remnants of pipes that caused major leaks, like a museum of water loss.

The TWSD asked Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s office to secure $45 million in federal appropriations, enough to cover the entire cost of line replacement, but the Senator has only requested $3.6 million to date, and the funding has yet to be approved.

And, according to Harding, the TWSD has no capital reserves. It can barely keep up with operating expenses, let alone invest in new water lines. 

Its only reliable sources of revenue are the rates paid by water customers and the small services and facilities fees paid by property owners. Complicating matters, in 1992, Harding says a district court ordered the TWSD to manage a variety of services entirely unrelated to water, such as maintenance of the local cemetery,  the golf course, the swimming pool and about 100 miles of roads. In May, the state’s Public Regulation Commission ruled that, henceforth, water revenues can only be spent on the water system.

The ruling might not change much. Nearly all available resources have already been directed to water needs, with other services put on the back burner. The dirt road to Charlie Marshall’s place, for example, is in such bad condition that the company that once delivered his oxygen won’t come to his house anymore, and the supervisor from his Alamogordo-based home health care provider can’t make it there in her low-clearance, two-wheel-drive vehicle. 

Joe Bob Shields, senior water operator at TWSD

Harding knows it’s a problem. “We have one grader operator, but he only works on the roads one day a week,” he said. “The rest of the time, he’s helping repair water lines.”

Joe Bob Shields, the senior water operator, moved to Timberon 15 years ago, leaving a job as an oil worker around Hobbs for a more peaceful life. As his wife, Connie, put it: “He got blew up in the oil fields and had 450 stitches in his face.” Most days, Shields is out mending water pipes. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve become pros at fixing leaks,” he said, as a bulldozer filled in a hole over a fresh repair 50 yards behind him. “We expect things to break and just take it as it comes, dealing with jobs in order of importance.”

Residents experience the water crisis with a mixture of resignation and concern. 

Connie Shields owns a local café, Connie’s Deli, known for its from-scratch baked goods and pizza crusts. Business is good, and she and Joe Bob live in their “dream home” on a nearby hillside. But while the café hasn’t suffered from water outages as frequently as some area homes, a systemwide failure hovers like a cloud darkening the horizon. 

Connie Shields, at her deli-pizzeria

“It’s very scary,” Connie said. “I’ve considered selling the restaurant and moving. But a lot of people here don’t even have that option — our town has a lot of elderly and low-income folks who are just scraping by.” 

One member of the local volunteer fire department who moved to Timberon from Wyoming six years ago recently installed a 1,200-gallon supplemental water tank at his home. “I also make sure I have plenty of bottled water on hand,” John Warren said. “Living here, you’ve got to be prepared. About a month ago I had visitors from out of town and no water for four days.” 

Because the town is surrounded by forest, the water failures impact more than the ability to use a tap or a toilet. Fire is always a looming danger — more than 40 homes were lost in a 2016 blaze — and only five of Timberon’s nine hydrants meet state testing specs for flow and pressure. The other four are covered by plastic trash bags, officially out of service.

Each spring, the volunteer fire department fills an 8,000-gallon tank with a backup water supply, available to fill tanker trucks if a fire breaks out while water lines are down. “If we need to, we can also pull from the local swimming pool and the little lake at the golf course,” the department’s chief, Tony McWilliams, explained. (The community has been trying to maintain amenities like the golf course but is operating them at minimal levels, due to the water troubles.)

Nearly half of the fire hydrants in Timberon are covered with trash bags because they don’t meet specs for pressure and flow.

The top priority for his crews, McWilliams said, is protecting the area around the springs, which provide much of Timberon’s water. “If that gets damaged by fire and ash, this town is dead. We can’t make it without the springs.” 

When contemplating the department’s ability to function as water lines deteriorate, he expresses the kind of confidence that comes from years of experience. 

“You find a way,” he said. “But it will get harder for people if we have to drain the town’s water tanks to fight a fire. We need new lines and new hydrants, but there’s no money to do any of that. New Mexico doesn’t care about little podunk towns like ours. The voters are in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”

Harding muses that the ultimate solution might be a radical one. “Sometimes I think we should sell the whole water system to Coca-Cola or Nestle, let them fix all the lines and bottle the excess water that comes from the springs.” 

A Timberon neighborhood

For the foreseeable future, Harding and his maintenance team will be staying busy.

“There’s never a dull moment,” said Joe Bob Shields. “But sometimes I’d like a vacation.”

“At least he has job security,” Harding, standing beside him, joked. “At this rate, his grandchildren will too.”

Diners at Connie’s Deli

Michael Benanav is a writer, photographer and digital storyteller based in northern New Mexico. In addition to Searchlight, his work appears in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sierra...