SUNLAND PARK — Ramon Sierra worries about the children in his neighborhood.
He sits at his dining room table in Sunland Park’s Anapra area and watches the street through his front door. Sometimes kids play outside under a punishing sun or pass by on bikes. Sometimes he sees them drinking water from a hose to cool off.
As far as Sierra is concerned, there’s no certainty that the water isn’t doing those kids more harm than good.
The Sunland Park/Santa Teresa region’s water system has been plagued in recent years by a number of problems, including arsenic levels that exceeded federal health standards.
“What could be happening to them?” Sierra asks about the children.
Sierra’s fears are amplified by what happened to his wife Maria. She died on June 2 at age 63. Sitting at the table in his dining room on a recent hot day, Sierra, 65, reads from his wife’s death certificate that she died from natural causes. Then he reads off a list of ailments that took her life. They include stage 4 chronic kidney disease, kidney stones, hypertension, and systematic lupus — some of which can be caused by arsenic.
Sierra and his wife built their two-story house in 1970, 13 years before Sunland Park was incorporated as a city. The home is located in a historic community that was cut in half by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase that gave part of the region from Mexico to the United States. To the south of Sierra’s neighborhood, Mt. Cristo Rey rises with its 29-foot-tall limestone statue of Jesus on top and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on the other side. The Rio Grande loops around Sierra’s neighborhood on the other three sides. El Paso, Texas is literally a stone’s throw away.
Sierra’s home is in Doña Ana County — in an impoverished colonia that many say was long ignored by the county government that used to be responsible for providing services. Since Sunland Park incorporated in 1983, the city of about 15,000 people has been plagued by corruption and other problems, though many say it’s finally gotten on a better track in recent years.
Sunland Park residents and officials remain skeptical of the water system, which is run by a separate government agency, the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority (CRRUA). The utility was formed in 2009 as part of a settlement to end decades of legal battles over water between Sunland Park and Doña Ana County. The aim was to improve cooperation and infrastructure in a region officials hope is ready for significant industrial and residential growth.
But recent revelations have damaged CRRUA’s credibility with local residents. The utility has admitted a pattern of arsenic violations between February 2012 and April 2016 — though they say they’ve fixed the problems. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. And management troubles, including going without an executive director and operations director for part of 2015, have plagued the agency.
Sierra says he and his wife stopped drinking water from the tap five years ago, when his wife became so ill that he had to quit working to care for her. On top of paying his monthly water bill, Sierra buys bottled water by the case. He keeps some cold in his refrigerator. On the day of this interview he also had two cases stacked near his front door.
Sometimes he hands out bottles of water to children he sees outside.
Sierra says he isn’t the type of person to pursue tests and documentation to determine if the water was responsible for his wife’s death. He did allow Santa Teresa resident Paul Maxwell to test the water from his tap this past spring, and it showed arsenic in excess of health standards. Still, Sierra said, “I cannot blame the water. I don’t have the proof.”
But he has his suspicions. He and his wife drank the tap water in Anapra for decades.
Sierra’s wife had a difficult final few years, and he’s focused on believing she’s at peace. “I’m just glad she’s not suffering anymore,” he said.
The children in Sierra’s neighborhood are another matter. He hears CRRUA officials say the water is now safe to drink, but like many Sunland Park city officials and residents, he has his doubts.
“It’s kind of hard to believe them,” Sierra said.
This article has been updated to include information about the water test Maxwell conducted at Sierra’s home.