New Mexico Town Questions The Abundance of Its Hot Springs

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
February 11, 2014
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Downtown Truth or Consequences is dotted with locally owned hotels that feature in-house bathhouses for hot mineral water soaks.

The southern New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences not only has a funny name, but a funky history.

Originally the town was called Hot Springs, named for the ancient mineral water that bubbles beneath its downtown. Early settlers braved Apache raids to soak in these so-called healing waters.

Today the town's economy is built around them, but lately locals have begun to worry about the abundance of their precious natural resource.

At a local hotel, visitors soak in outdoor pools that sit on the bank of the Rio Grande and overlook a mountain shaped like a turtle shell. The temperature of the water usually hovers above 100 degrees.

Albuquerque resident Jessica Wiener loves this water. After a soak her skin glowed with a pink hue. 

"It's really relaxing," she said. "It's soft and its gentle and it's taking a bath in Mother Earth."

Wiener has been coming here for the past 16 years. The first time was by chance, on a road trip with a friend.

"I didn't even want to come. The name of the town Truth or Consequences, it like weirded me out," she said.

It's a weird name that comes from a popular 1950s TV game show. For the show's ten year anniversary host Ralph Edwards promised to broadcast the show from the first town that agreed to change its name to Truth or Consequences. On April 1, 1950, Hot Springs, N.M., did just that.

Today locals call the town "T or C" for short. It got its start in the early 1900s when a huge federal dam project started construction nearby. Weary workers would venture five miles from their base to seek out women and booze in the tiny outpost. After the dam was completed in 1916, people stuck around for the hot mineral water. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt funded a hospital here where children with polio received therapy in a giant pool.  

These days downtown T or C is dotted with locally owned hotel spas that feature in-house mineral baths. The Charles Motel is a 70-year-old bathhouse named after a soldier who died in World War II.

"In my estimation this is some of the best water in the world," said owner Kathy Clark. "It's got 36 different minerals and compounds in it."

These bath houses contribute nearly half of the city’s lodger's tax. A decade ago, when the economy was stronger, outside interest in the town began to grow.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A visitor soaks in one of the hot spring pools at Riverbend Hot Springs.

"People were moving here from New York, from back east, from California," Clark said. "And so there was a small like four or five year period of a boom here."

The number of well permits suddenly spiked from a few dozen to 150 and locals began to worry.

"There were some wells out in the community that were … not producing how they used to produce," said city manager Juan Fuentes. "So there was a concern about what was happening to the aquifer."

In 2012 the city issued a moratorium on future well permits and commissioned a study led by hydrologist Mark Person of New Mexico Tech University. The study showed there was no immediate danger to the hot water source, but that not all bathhouses were monitoring and reporting their water use as required by the state engineer.

"We are somewhat concerned that they might be using almost all of the potential geothermal fluids," Person said.

That could be a problem, especially as outside interest in the town continues to grow. Consider the mild climate, the low-cost housing and even the new age medicine appeal.

“Sometimes it's better to soak in the mineral baths and have a massage than it is to take a handful of pills that may end up adversely impacting you liver," said local historian Sherry Fletcher.

Last year billionaire Ted Turner, founder of the TV news network CNN, bought one of the largest hotels in the hot water district. And 20 miles south of town, a multimillion dollar commercial spaceport is under construction.

The city of T or C is currently drafting new regulations that would expand its water monitoring efforts in the hopes of better protecting a unique resource central to its identity.