ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — City commissioners in the southern New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences are proposing a moratorium on well drilling while they attempt to figure out if the number of wells tapping into the city's famed hot springs is harming the lifeblood of its eclectic mix of inns and spas.
The commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to publish the proposal, which would ban the drilling of any new wells, with a few exceptions to ensure the city's 6,500 residents have affordable access to drinking water.
The proposal, which will be up for a final vote July 17, is pitting some of the town's hot springs business owners against each other.
Bill Martin, owner of the 82-year-old Artesian Bathhouse and RV Park, says reduced pressure in his lines has forced him to close a third of his tubs. He blames the problem on the number of new wells drilled in town over the past decade and an increase in people using domestic wells for commercial operations.
"I've been here since 1982 and I've never seen this place so bad," he said in a telephone interview. "It's moved from being a retirement town to a rip off your neighbor town."
While Martin's neighbor, La Paloma Hot Springs & Spa owner Lisa Malzahn, says she sometimes has to shut her tubs due to low pressure, other inn owners who are upstream say the moratorium is unnecessary and is being driven by a "sky is falling mentality."
"I don't have any problems," said Richard Epstein, who has owned the Fire Water Lodge for 18 years. "There are plenty of hot springs. I don't know what these people are thinking. ... It's people who already have and don't want anybody else to have. I don't like people who are, 'I've got mine, you can't have yours."
Sid Bryan, owner of the Red Pelican and Pelican Spa, says he thinks the moratorium is unnecessary, and notes "when they tried to do this six years ago it created a run on wells."
Mayor John Mulcahy, meantime, says the town is simply taking steps to try and understand what is going on and make sure a crucial resource is protected. "We don't know. That's the deal," he said. "I've got one guy saying, 'I've got a problem,' another guy saying, 'I don't.'"
Mulcahy says a total of 146 well permits have been granted by the city in its history, and there are currently 84 active wells. Under current law, he said, any property owner can drill a well, and there is no differentiation between regular water wells and thermal wells, meaning anyone in the city can tap into the thermal zone.
Malzahn says the Artesian mineral springs are the lifeblood of the town, attracting visitors drawn to their reputed medicinal powers.
Mulcahy emphasizes the hot springs are not drying up. Martin agrees, noting the thermal water dates back to the Ice Age. The pressure problems seem to be related to flows from the nearby Elephant Butte Lake damn into the Rio Grande and to agricultural users in the area, Martin and Malvahn said.
Martin says his concern is that fluctuating pressures could interrupt flows and pull contaminants like those from an old gas station leak downtown into the thermal springs.
"It's a huge mess that's been created," he said. "I am really concerned about that aquifer. It's really fragile."
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.