Update: Pipeline construction in the Rio Grande Gorge will begin as scheduled on Tuesday, (Aug. 1) but the one-way restricted traffic zone on State Road 68 won't start until Monday, (Aug. 7), according to New Mexico Gas Co.
Work will begin Aug.1 near Mile Marker 30 north of Pilar. One construction crew will be off the road at a distance and a second crew will be clearing vegetation in the right-of-way along State Road 68.
"Motorists should watch for increased truck traffic where the highway climbs out of the canyon north of Pilar and at the BLM rest area on State Road 68," according to a news release from the gas company. "Flaggers may temporarily stop traffic at those locations to assist turning trucks."
The 24-hour one-lane traffic restriction is now expected to begin Aug. 7, when excavation starts north of Pilar.
It will take an estimated four months of construction to reroute and expand 6 miles of natural gas pipeline in the Río Grande Gorge along State Road 68.
The $14 million project is billed as a necessary upgrade to the potentially dangerous infrastructure New Mexico Gas Company currently has in place. But when construction is finished, there will still be cash-strapped pockets of Northern New Mexico without natural gas service.
The pipeline - Taos County's only source of natural gas, which New Mexico Gas Company purchases from producers mostly in the San Juan Basin - currently runs along the west side of the Río Grande between Rinconada and Pilar, where shifting soils and active geology have put the pipeline at risk of rupture and damage for at least the past three decades.
The gas company submitted a right-of-way application to the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 in order to "provide a more secure and safe service of natural gas delivery to the community [of Taos County]," according to the environmental assessment prepared by the BLM.
The original reroute plan called for a river crossing and new, notable scars on the landscape. The public, especially Pilar residents, found it an unacceptable proposal and worked with the BLM to come up with the plan to run the pipeline along the highway.
The BLM granted the gas company approval for the project April 26.
Construction is expected to last until mid-November.
After construction, the pipeline will run along the east side of State Road 68. The project will eliminate two crossings under the Río Grande and remove pipeline infrastructure from a culturally significant hillside in Pilar, where there's a spiral petroglyph, crumbling morada and Apache sites.
While the gas infrastructure will be upgraded from an 8-inch pipe to a 12-inch pipe - nearly doubling the capacity of the line - the gas company has said from the get-go that the improvements are borne out of concerns for public safety and the integrity of the line.
The current pipeline is located in the Embudo fault. Even without rock slides or earthquakes, the ground is moving. Seeps on the western side of the river make for lush, green areas thick with reeds and cottonwoods. But those same seeps are unstable, especially for critical infrastructure.
The gas pipeline has been monitored for stress since the mid-1980s, "when a pipeline break prompted two sections of buried pipeline to be excavated and replaced with flexible above-ground pipe," according to a BLM report. In the 1990s, additional segments of the underground pipeline were moved above ground to allow for greater flexibility.
Though the gas company has monitored the line for stress for nearly 30 years, it was only in the last four or five that the most severe damage was recorded.
Location also makes it a tough piece of infrastructure to work with. There's no road access to the west side of the river near Rinconada. In order to service the pipeline, a contractor has to wait until the fall, when water levels are low enough to drive a tractor to the other riverbank and up the hillside, according to Tim Korte, spokesperson for the gas company.
Carl Berghoffer, a lifelong resident of Embudo, where he has a fruit stand in the summer months, said he was around when the gas pipeline was first put in. "I told them not to put it there," he said.
He's glad someone is finally remedying the problem - albeit 50 years later.
New Mexico Gas Company is financing and directing the rerouting of the pipeline, but the company has a recent history outside the state.
Prior to 2009, New Mexico Gas Company was owned by Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), according to Korte. From 2009 until 2014, it was owned by Oklahoma-based Congenital Energy. TECO Energy, based in Tampa, Florida, purchased the gas company in 2014. And last year, both the New Mexico and Florida utility companies were bought by Emera, based out of Halifax, Novia Scotia, Canada.
The gas company announced in June a finalized contract for the entire project with Crossfire, LLC. of Durango, Colorado. Subcontractors are New Mexico companies. The details of the contract are not public.
Tom Domme, vice president of external affairs with New Mexico Gas Co., told Taos County commissioners during a July meeting that the $14 million upgrade and all other capital expenditures are rolled into the operating budget of the company. Rates are determined during Public Regulation Commission "rate cases," such as the one Kit Carson Electric Cooperative went through last year. He could not say specifically what the impact to users would be, but noted costs of the project are spread across all customers in the state.
The company plans to keep one lane of traffic open while crews work on mile-long sections of the pipeline from August to November. Crews will work Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Vehicles will have to rely on a flagger to move through the Río Grande Gorge.
Work will begin at the north end of the project, near mile marker 30, just north of Pilar. Crews will then proceed south toward Pilar.
"Our objective is to limit traffic delays to no more than 15 to 30 minutes and, of course, we will strive to decrease wait times as much as possible," said Korte.
It's those delays that may have the biggest impact on local residents and businesses, especially rafting outfits, which work on strict schedules during the height of tourist season. Rafting companies may drive up and down the Río Grande Gorge as many as four times a day, meaning half-hour delays could stretch out their work days by up to two hours.
Rico Salazar, owner of Pilar Yacht Club, told The Taos News that regardless of the hassles, it's a necessary project. "You'll have to wait, simple as that. Let's get it started," he said.
But summer tourists aren't the only ones who will be affected. The El Centro Family Health Clinic is located just outside of the southern end of the project. No one had contacted the clinic concerning traffic delays, a staffer said.
Berghoffer, standing in the shade of his fruit stand across the highway from the clinic, told The Taos News that he's not concerned about the traffic "because they all need to slow down a little bit anyways."
Yet there are thousands of Taos County residents who won't see natural gas service even after crews wrap up in November. Many of them live in Peñasco, where most people rely on propane or wood to heat their homes.
Mike Pacheco, who runs a mechanic shop and the High Road Market, told The Taos News that, during the winter, "it just doesn't pay to heat up" his shop with propane. Instead, he wears thick thermals and hunkers down in the office until a customer comes in.
Just down the road is Sugar Nymphs Bistro. Owner Kai Harper said she pays "a fortune" for propane and has had to get crafty to cut down costs. The pizza oven heats up to 650 degrees, pulling a lot of propane in the process. So now they only serve pizza on the weekend.
The schools in Peñasco are all located on one campus, which is heated by a 30,000-gallon propane tank. School officials said they fill it up every month during the winter and less during the rest of the year. It costs about $9,000 each time.
Reliability of propane in the hinterlands of Taos County is a constant worry. The public housing complex in Peñasco has run out of propane during the winter two years in a row.
But even some of those people among the 16,000 natural gas customers in Taos County are concerned about the reliability of the gas line during the construction project.
Barbara Rose, an elderly customer in Taos, said she and her friends are worried they might have a repeat of 2011, when 30,000 homes across the state (including all of Taos County) lost service. While the community rallied to take care of each other in that time, it made it clear just how disruptive an empty natural gas line can be.
During the week that the gas company switches service to the newly laid pipeline, workers will truck in liquid natural gas to a receiver station on County Road 110 in order to prevent the lines in Taos from losing pressure.