IGNACIO – Farmers Fresh Market in Ignacio has been giving out free water from a filling station inside the store to help residents with poor water quality.
Residents in southeast La Plata County are used to poor water quality, whether it’s the rust smell, the mineral buildup on kitchen appliances or concerns about the impacts of oil and gas operations in the area. They’re used to hauling, filling jugs and paying for drinking water, and the market’s free filling station is a convenient resource. With water rates set to increase, market management expects the free water program to continue.
“We figured out the water costs something around a penny a gallon for us, so we’ll continue to give water,” said Amos Lee, general manager at Farmers Fresh.
The Southern Ute Utilities Division, which operates the town’s water treatment facility, is increasing its monthly drinking water rates from $32.80 per 8,000 gallons to $47.80 per 6,000 gallons, a 94% increase. Rates will continue to rise over coming years, according to a Southern Ute Indian Tribe news release.
The town of Ignacio also charges customers for operating and administrative costs. Those rates could increase in 2020 depending on how much water ratepayers use.
At several board meetings, the town board of trustees and community members have questioned the impact the increases will have on businesses and economic growth in the community.
Lee even gets his own water from the store. Like others in the area, his well is decent enough for some uses, but he prefers to get drinking water from the store – especially because the town’s water comes through a high-quality water treatment plant operated by the tribe.
“It’s really a Cadillac system. Maybe more than this community needs,” Lee said. “They’re trying to pay for the cost of it by raising the rates. It’s not a lot of population here to spread those costs out.”
Multiple residents come into the local grocer every day to get free water. Four customers Tuesday said they come in multiple times a week. They use it for drinking and cooking, to avoid rusty smelling water, or to stop mineral buildup in kitchen appliances that require water.
“Pretty much everyone in this part of the county doesn’t have good groundwater,” Lee said.
Because of local geology, a small but significant percentage of wells throughout La Plata and Archuleta counties have issues with contamination from metals and other minerals, according to San Juan Basin Public Health.
Blake Mamich, who lives outside Ignacio, depended more on the free water service in 2018 when the drought decreased his well’s output.
John Serrano, a resident near Allison, doesn’t trust his water with oil and gas operations around.
“Your well is 300 feet. They’ll drill 1,000 feet, you know?” Serrano said. “You know they’re tapping into your stream because there’s underground rivers.”
Private well owners are responsible for testing their wells because the federal Safe Drinking Water Act does not apply to private wells, SJBPH said. Owners might need to test for volatile organic compounds if they are near oil and gas sites, fluoride if they are in the Pine River Valley, and other contaminants like arsenic, lead and coliform bacteria.
Similar water stations at grocery stores charge for each gallon of water; the fact that water from Farmers Fresh is free makes a noticeable financial difference over time. It’s a convenient service customers hope to see continue.
“In a way, it’s a big help because they could be charging for it, like in Durango,” Serrano said.
The free water program also helps draw in customers to the local grocer and away from companies like Kroger and Walmart, which have “tremendous buying power,” Lee said.
“Anything we can do to bring people in the stores is beneficial. In the case of water, it’s a cheap thing to do,” Lee said.