By ALTA LeCOMPTE
From her long blonde hairs to her high-heeled pumps, Doña Ana Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association Executive Director Jennifer Horton looks the part when she enters a meeting room.
But the safety vest hanging on a chair in her office and the pink hard hat on her conference table attest to the fact that her job also takes her into the field, where boots replace dress pumps.
Since arriving on the job six years ago, Horton has been instrumental in securing $30 million in federal and state financing to improve and expand the water and sewer infrastructure that serves 5,600 members in unincorporated areas west and north of the city.
The association’s territory extends from Interstate 25 on the east to the Rio Grande on the west — and from the city limits north to Lujan Hill Road. It also includes all of Picacho Hills and “a small section south of the pumpkin patch.”
As new subdivisions go online — and older systems need upgrades and existing water customers opt for sewer service — the association is working on $900,000 worth of projects and looking ahead to an additional $3 to $4 million now in the planning stages.
Horton’s business studies and experience in banking prepared her to make the numbers work for the growing enterprise.<
What is a mutual water association?
Doña Ana Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association is neither a company nor a nonprofit, Horton explained.
The association formed in 1974 with 76 members all in the Village of Doña Ana, all getting their water from wells.
The association became a nonprofit organization in the late 1990s and built the nucleus of the current system with federal funding.
In the early 2000s, the association morphed from an NPO to a local public agency governed by the city and county. Its revenue is derived from sales and services. Any excess over costs goes back into capital improvements, Horton said. A board of directors representing five districts heads the association and meets twice a month, Horton said.
She said the elections are uncontested — one year when nobody came forward to run, Horton had to recruit a candidate.
“Most people don’t care as long as they can get up in the morning and turn on the water and flush the toilet,” she said.
Association serves growing area
In 2013, the association underwent a major expansion, acquiring Fort Selden Water Co., Picacho Hills Utility Co. and Fairview Estates Water System.
The net result was 5,000 new members, Horton said.
A new growth spurt appears to be underway.
Horton said a number of subdivisions are being built now, and the water association is busy constructing water lines to serve them.
Projects include Legends West, which is starting a new phase with more than 60 homes, and a 140-lot subdivision.
Construction is about to begin on River Walk, a community of 80 mobile homes at the intersection of Picacho Avenue and Burke Road, Horton said.
Meanwhile, Doña Ana Mutual is working on some serious upgrades — $8 to $10 million worth — for the Picacho Peak community. The association acquired that system when the prior owner went bankrupt.
Two new tanks each have a 900,000-gallon capacity. Thanks to pressure-reducing valves, tanks can be filled and water distributed — and there will always be a tank full and available to meet peak demand, Horton said.
A replacement line for Via Norte, the oldest section of Picacho Hills is currently under design, with construction expected in summer and fall, she said.
The waste water treatment plant also is undergoing an upgrade under contract with Picacho Hills Country Club so that water from the plant can be used to irrigate the golf course without the addition of fresh water.
A third project will connect Picacho Hills with the main system, which currently ends at Shalem Colony Trail.
Home for the holidays
While Horton and her colleagues are water specialists, her dad Buddy Grice specializes in highpressure drilling in the oil fields of southeastern New Mexico.
After a long career in the oil and gas industry, Grice recently started his own company, Grice Consulting Inc. During a recent visit with her parents, Horton accompanied her dad to an oil rig. He asked if she ever wore a hard hat, and when she said yes he surprised her with the pink one at Christmas.
“I’m Daddy’s girl,” said Horton, who’s an only child. “And my mom is my best friend.”
Horton said her dad never finished high school and her mom, who is now the business manager for the Artesia School District, earned a business degree while Jennifer was in high school.
“I saw how hard it was for my mother to work full time and go to school,” she said. “Watching my parents, I always knew I wanted to go to college.”
Horton left Artesia for Las Cruces to attend New Mexico State University where she earned a degree in accountancy and another in finance. After college, she stayed in the city to start her career in banking.
She became a credit analyst and later marketing director for the Bank of the Rio Grande.
“My first mentor out of college was Steve Brown, president of the Bank of the Rio Grande,” she said. “He was firm, but he very much wanted me to learn. He taught me the banking world and I got a good feel for what it took.”
Horton said because the bank was small, she frequently interacted with management and staff , learning from everyone.
In her second banking gig — as business banker and then branch manager for Citizens Bank — Horton said she was fortunate to be mentored by Kim Hakes and George Ruth.
After a time she decided to study for a CPA, and took a temporary parttime job as an accounting clerk for Dona Ana Mutual.
“Six and a half years later, I’m still here,” she said. “I have come to the place where I fit.”
Focus on people
Horton said the thing she likes most about her position is the opportunity to work with people — the reason she initially was attracted to banking.
In addition, she has an opportunity to use the skills she learned at NMSU and honed in her banking career while learning a different industry.
“I get to be in the field, to use my background in finance and accounting and to work with legislators, funding sources, board members, engineers and customers,” Horton said.
The mother of a 6-year-old daughter, she said Las Cruces is a good community in which to raise a family.
“I like that it’s not small like Artesia but not too big like Albuquerque,” Horton said.
Alta LeCompte can be reached at email@example.com or 575-3437478.