By Judith Lewis Mernet
When Clarence Aragon began managing the half-century-old Mora Mutual Water and Sewer Association 12 years ago, he thought he was helping the environment. Hundreds of households around Mora, N.M. -- a small river-valley community on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains -- flush wastewater through subpar septic systems, sending trickles of variably treated sewage into a shallow aquifer and eventually to the Mora River. But Aragon's 1,000 or so subscribers employ one of rural New Mexico's few treatment plants, a system of lagoons that oxygenate the water while special bacteria digest harmful sludge.
The system isn't perfect, Aragon admits: The lagoons need repairs, and even when they're working properly, they weren't designed to reduce algae-fueling nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorous -- enough to meet up-to-date water-quality standards. But building a treatment plant to meet those standards, which originated in a 1997 environmentalist lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would cost around $7 million.
"This is a community with zero economy and 25 percent unemployment," Aragon says. "Even if someone were to write me a check for (that system), we couldn't afford to run it."