A malfunctioning septic system at the Arroyo Seco Community Center that has periodically sent a trickle of green water into a nearby creek is set to get a nearly complete overhaul in the coming weeks to remedy issues that have plagued the property for decades.
The community center is located at the intersection of State Road 150 and El Salto Road. Taos County took over ownership of the two-building complex in 2008 after a deal with Taos Municipal Schools to transfer the property was approved by the state.
The building is currently leased from the county by the community association.
But when the county took over the property -- valued at around $600,000 in a 2007 audit -- the government inherited a problem with the center's septic system that stems from the area's high water table.
For decades, the community center relied on a traditional septic system, just like most of the businesses and residences in the unincorporated village, according to Mark Flores, facilities director for Taos County.
While the schools still owned the buildings, Taos Charter School leased the property. Even at that time, the septic system's shallow leach field was dysfunctional enough that the tanks (a total of three on the property) had to be pumped every month, according to Taos News archives.
Sometime between 2009 and 2012, the traditional septic system was converted to a mound system, which still relies on evaporation but was designed, in part, for areas like Arroyo Seco with a high water table.
The state's environment department engineered the mound system at the time, according to Flores.
However, a seasonal "underground river" runs right through the south end of the community center property, where one of the septic tanks is located, according to Flores. The mound system quickly proved inadequate, as the soil around the tanks would still get saturated with the seasonal flow.
For that reason, the basic septic infrastructure was kept in the ground, but capped and converted to "holding tanks," which do not require a mound, but do need to be pumped out more frequently. That conversion was done within the last few years.
However, the underground river still occasionally inundated the system with water such that the county needed to pump the tank as often as every week.
Last month, county workers dug foot-deep trenches around the tanks to "divert that groundwater away [from the system]," Flores said. Green, stagnant water had pooled in the trenches by Monday (May 8), which is when The Taos News visited the site. Some of the green, noxious-looking water flowed from the property into the ditch and into the nearby creek. The trenches have since been covered up, according to Flores.
Bill Woodall, a local ranch manager, told The Taos News he was concerned about the septic system and green water because of potential impacts to cows and the larger ecosystem. "The thing that makes us most famous is our pure, clean water, the agua sagrada," he said.
While Flores acknowledges local residents "have every right to be concerned," he told The Taos News the problem with the system was always one of "keeping groundwater out of the septic, not keeping septic out of the groundwater."
A district manager with the New Mexico Environment Department -- from whom the county must secure a liquid waste permit -- could not confirm if the department had recently tested the nearby stream.
Flores said the county is working to get the necessary permit so a contractor can begin working on a proposal within the coming week or so.
The tank is to be moved to an area of the property where the seasonal water table is not so high, he said.
"What we really need is a small community [wastewater] system," Jamie Leeson, one of the owners of Arroyo Seco's Taos Cow ice cream and coffee shop, which is downstream from the malfunctioning septic system, said in an interview Tuesday (May 9).
Such a system, while expensive, would give the village a chance to deal with their wastewater issues in a comprehensive way, rather than with incremental, piecemeal upgrades to the many septic systems throughout the village.
Editor's note: Robin Martin, owner of The Taos News, owns a ranch in Arroyo Seco managed by Woodall.