Tom and Judy McNeil never considered themselves tree huggers or ultra-conservationists. But life sometimes leads a person down a path never consciously charted.

When Judy, a retired registered nurse, began experiencing some health issues, and Tom wasn't far behind, the couple tried to pinpoint possible causes and decided that while the village of Ruidoso's water was deemed "safe" to drink, that some of the chemicals used to arrive at that point might be contributing to their symptoms. They first thought about drilling a private well, but when they ran into obstacles with the village council, decided to create a custom rainwater collection and treatment system for their home on Metz Drive.

"I don't know if you would call us green," Tom said during an interview last week, "I guess the process has kind of turned us that way. That was not our intent."

Born in Roswell and a Ruidoso High School graduate in 1966, Tom grew up in a family with an agricultural and educational focus. His father taught school locally and served on the village council in the 1970s. He often would say to his son that water was liquid gold in New Mexico. Tom served in Vietnam, earned a degree from New Mexico State University tied to veterinary medicine and found that he was fascinated particularly with genetics and endocrinology, "feed and feeding, cause and effect." After retiring from the food

industry, he spent several years as a trouble shooter in the bakery business. He married Judy nine years ago and a year later they moved back to Ruidoso.

"What got me interested in the water situation was that after the Little Bear Fire (in June 2012), we had a major health problem here at the house. We discovered that the only thing that had changed in our lifestyle was the quality of the water," he said. "We researched extensively using both of our science backgrounds and determined that we strongly believe that the extensive treatment of the water by the city caused a chemical reaction, which caused the problem."

They obtained a permit from the state to drill a private well with the idea that they would treat their own water, but a 2008 village ordinance required approval from the council to drill within the city limits. They applied and went to the council.

"We did not have blood or water samples from the time the medical problem occurred to prove or disprove the assertion," Tom said. "The city requested we withdraw our application and we did, because they weren't comfortable making the decision. Don't get me wrong, I have the ultimate respect for the members of the village council and gratitude that they are willing to give their personal time to do what has to be done, and they are facing a major problem with the water."

Different approaches tried

Realizing they would have to deal with village water, the McNeils installed their own reverse osmosis purification system and it dramatically improved the water quality, Tom said. But such systems are very inefficient, "and we didn't feel we were being good stewards for water conservation," he said. "It takes four gallons to produce one. The best I've heard is two for one in more expensive systems."

"So you can't do a household," Judy said. "You would bathe and wash your clothes and dishes in village water."

They knew something else was needed. Shortly after they installed the reverse osmosis system, Tom read about a course in rain harvesting being taught by Jim Miller at Eastern New Mexico University.

"We learned in class that the area is either in a 25-year drought or climate change, and we're only halfway through, if it's drought," he said. "The water tables will continue dropping and the minerals in the water will become more concentrated and the quality worse. It looked like the alternative was harvesting rainwater. Growing up in New Mexico as a kid, I remember a lot of people had cisterns. We started doing the research on harvesting and the volume we could collect in our so-called monsoon season. The basic source (of rain) comes in a short period of time, so we needed holding capacity as well as harvesting and treatment.

"Just because it looks green (outside) now doesn't mean that water table is fixed. It's going to drop."

Tom quickly learned the basics for harvesting and treatment, although the class was slanted toward use of rainwater for landscaping. About the same time, his nephew, Marshall Thompson and wife, Christina, who has her master's in a water-related field, offered their expertise.

"They had their system in for seven years (in Lincoln County) and have never run out of water," Judy said. "We started researching on the internet for tanks. Marshall has done three systems. They gave us information about what we needed."

After determining their approximate monthly water requirements, they bought seven 2,950 gallon tanks from Phil Monfette based in Cloudcroft. The tanks were black to prevent exposure to light and the growth of algae,

One of the neighbors later told the couple she blanched when the 93-inch tall, 102-inch diameter tanks arrived, but once they were positioned on the sides of the house and painted blue gray, they blended into the background.

When Tom couldn't find a professional to install the system, he found out what was needed, designed the system and installed it over a couple of months. The house went on-line July 27.

"I didn't want the tanks on multiple levels, because I'm 65 and didn't want to be out in winter transferring water from one level to another," Tom said, "By feeding from the bottom, (all of the water levels) will rise simultaneously. A friend, David Norton, helped me tie them all together. I had to modify my gutter systems to divert water in appropriate places. David Hanna with Loma Grande Construction and Seamless Gutters in Nogal did a fantastic job coming in and customizing and installed them."

"You have to have licensed plumber, because the system has to be inspected by the village, so there is no way our water could back mingle with village water," Judy said. Tom interjected with a smile, "We had valves installed to ensure we did not contaminate their bad water with our pure water."

Carl Parsons of Parsons Plumbing handled the licensed work and had experience with a few similar types of installation, they said.

If the couple ever runs out of rainwater, opening and closing some valves quickly will put them back on village water as insurance. Being within 300 feet of a village water line, they would be required to pay the base fee any way, so the McNeils' home was plumbed to use village water to flush their toilets, Tom said. That accounts for about 30 percent of their water use.

"If we go back on city water, it will go through our purification process with ultraviolet light and a filtration system," Tom said. The filtration was needed to remove any larger particles from the roof, he said.

"We have a metal roof and the national average for percentage of collection is 60 percent of the potential rainfall and I think we are doing a little better than that, because of the gutter system we designed," he said. "We have top quality guards on top of our gutters that will not allow a full package pine needle with stem to go down the spout. It's very efficient. Once the water is in the tanks, we have a basket with screen that catches the next size down. So minimal size particles are coming into the holding tanks and when they run through first phase of filtration under the house, it's 0.5 microns (micrometre), very very small." After that, the water goes through the pressure pump and the ultra violet light, which Tom said will kill bacteria, viruses, algae and fungi. The control center, located and enclosed under their back deck, is compact and small with a few levers, the pump, the ultraviolet control and some piping.

Benefits seen

Judy said she noticed an immediate difference in her hair, which was softer and curlier, but had more volume, and in her skin, which no longer flakes from dryness.

"You don't have all those minerals," she said. A calcium crust never develops on dishes and there is no chlorine odor. Two others who benefit from the special water are Penny the Basset hound and Annie, the Yorkie-Chihuahua, who travel with the couple in their recreation vehicle, but drink the water from home on the trips to avoid upsetting their digestion.

"This whole thing definitely was a challenge," Tom said. Judy said the entire system probably cost about the same amount as drilling a private well.

They bought a rain gauge to track the precipitation and at 3.5 inches in June, they had collected about 14,000 gallons. "The capacity is 21,000 gallons for the tanks. We will get the additional snowmelt and we still have August. We want to get them topped off."

"We average 2,200 gallons a month use and that's flushing the toilet, so basically 1,400 gallons a month is a year's worth," Judy said.

"The timing is important," Tom said. "You don't want to spend a lot of money putting a system like this in and then wait a year for the monsoon to hit. We missed the first couple of big rains. It was very frustrating.

"We've had the water tested and it has passed with flying colors. People could do this simpler by using the village water and coming up with a lot better water by bringing it in and filtering it at certain stages to take out certain mineral and additives, and then running it through an ultraviolet light system. The unit we had installed was developed for NASA and Carl Parsons happened to buy directly from the designer."

"We both feel better, but maybe it is psychological," Tom said.

While they were tinkering, the couple also installed a gray water use system, which allows water from showers, vanities and washing machines for outside irrigation with restrictions. Check out the information under programs at the State Environment Department website, or call Steven Stedman at the local field office, 258-3272.

"All we are doing is interrupting the water cycle to hold it, not changing it at all," Tom said. "By harvesting, we're only collecting about three percent of the rain that would fall on our property. I truly didn't have a choice from a health point of view."