DIXON — “Do you notice anything weird?” farmer Loretta Sandoval asked a visitor as she worked her way through a field of varied trees, bushes, plants and weeds.
There were no insects. The flies, gnats and mosquitoes — the irritating pests that would normally be here in the summer — were nowhere to be found or felt.
Sandoval then pointed out two cornstalks on her property. One was about 6 feet tall. The other, right alongside the first, was stunted — no higher than 2 feet.
As Sandoval walked, she noted the soil surrounding one of the many acequias that weave their way through this small farming community 47 miles northeast of Santa Fe. The ground, even for New Mexico, was hard. Sandoval picked up a big chunk of dirt, knocking on it. Hollow.
“The soil is dead,” she said. “It’s not even soil anymore. It’s salt.”
Sandoval is not the only farmer in the Dixon community to notice something amiss with this year’s growing season. Elmer Martinez, a 72-year-old U.S. Army veteran who raises landrace chile peppers, among other produce, said seeds he planted in May “didn’t seed.”
While his pears and cucumbers came out OK, the chile didn’t.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said as he calculated how much money he would lose at $30 per bushel, for 25 lost bushels, this year. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me.”
This environmental mystery has captivated many Dixon-area residents who said they had sometimes seen sudsy bubbles in the water but never suspected anything was amiss until the last year or two. But after seeing more suds than usual in the spring, Sandoval and others began to wonder whether some sort of pollutant were coming downstream into their community.
Sandoval, an organic farmer with an academic background in science, did some research and asked if Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, some 20-plus miles upstream, was using a substance in its snow-making process that could be leaking into the river.
A query Sandoval made to the New Mexico Environmental Department showed Sipapu uses DRIFT, which can be used to make snow and kill insects.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Leeann Murphy said an in email the agency administers the permit for the Sipapu ski area and “the use of the chemical... is covered under their permit and they are authorized to use it within their permit boundary.”
In her email to the Environmental Department, Sandoval said the chemical is “a serious chemical and based on the investigative work we have been doing, it must frankly be treated as a chemical spill that we are alerting you to.”
Salazar and other farmers have collected soil and water samples they plan to have analyzed to learn more about what might be ailing their crops.
State Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the agency is reviewing the data Sandoval provided and “coordinating with external agriculture experts who may be best positioned to conduct a fuller investigation” into the issue.
She added the department had not yet been involved in any studies to look at the impact the chemical can have on the environment.
Sipapu general manager John Paul Bradley, who said the ski resort has used Drift to make snow for many years, said he hadn’t heard any concerns or complaints about it until this spring.
He said the resort uses just 3 gallons of Drift for every million gallons of water — usually completing snowmaking procedures by mid-January. He said forest officials alerted him sometime in late June to questions coming from Dixon residents about the chemical.
“There’s miles and miles and miles of river with people using this water closer to the source, but nobody else is saying anything or seeing anything or bringing it up,” Bradley said. “I live eight miles down the road. The apple trees around here look fine, my neighbors’ vegetable gardens all look fine. I’m a member of this community, and I wouldn’t want to screw it up.
“I can’t speak for what they are seeing down there,” he continued. “It is concerning if they are seeing something that is a problem. I hope they are not overlooking other potential contaminants.”
Hayden said it’s possible other factors could be at play, including “removal of vegetation, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, wildlife and pets, and possibly neighbors that are applying chemicals to their land or illicit spills-discharges.”
“It would be hard to point the finger solely at Sipapu — upper watershed — for problems experienced in Dixon — bottom of watershed and some 20 miles away and after dilution from the Rio Santa Barbara, Rio Chiquito, Chamisal Creek, and Rio de las Trampas,” Hayden said. “However, we do not have the data to know this for certain.”
At least one farmer in Vadito, north of Dixon, and one in Velarde, south of Dixon, said they are not experiencing any conditions similar to those Sandoval is reporting.
Efforts to reach a representative of Picuris Pueblo, north of Dixon, were unsuccessful.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said the Dixon community so far is the only one that has reached out to her regarding this issue.
“If there is a problem with any chemical, it could be devastating for people putting water in their fields,” she said.
Though she has not yet made a field visit to Dixon, she said the farmers there tend to pay close attention to what’s happening to their acequias, fields and crops.
“For the people being impacted, they know for sure that something is wrong,” she said.
Sandoval and some other farmers said they saw hints of bubbling suds last year, and a few had trouble harvesting crops last year because of soil problems.
Farmer Romolo Griego, who grew up in Dixon, said he “harvested very little last year.”
But as he surveyed his farm of grown crops, half-crops and no crops in some areas, Griego observed, “I never saw anything like this in all my years here.”
Garcia said it’s imperative that more is done to conduct water quality tests to ensure contaminants are not harming the environment.
For Sandoval, getting those tests done is paramount. Looking out at her acres of organic plants and trees, she bemoans the fact that she dare not try to put any of her crops on the market until she knows what ails them.
“I can’t sell anything,” she said. “I have no source of income.”
Correction — This story has been amended to reflect the following correction:The original version of this story said Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort uses a chemical known as Silwet L-77 to make snow. The actual chemical is DRIFT, which is, according to the New Mexico Environment Department, very similar to Silwet L-77.