Alarming findings from the San Juan Watershed Group's testing of the Animas, La Plata and San Juan rivers are a call to action.
Preliminary results show the three rivers exceed state standards for E. coli, which means human waste may be entering the rivers through illegal dumping or leaky septic systems.
San Juan County needs to get to the bottom of these troublesome findings. The group behind the study is cautious about the early data and wants more testing. We say the sooner the better. More research is needed to pinpoint the sources of the contamination and clearly define the problem. And elected officials need to make protecting that water resource their top priority.
County officials have said they are aware of illegal septic dumping, as well as old and leaking systems. They tell appalling stories about residents who essentially live in squalor. They talk about a colony of trailers tucked into a box canyon with a makeshift septic system and people who think a hole in the ground lined with an upsidedown Volkswagen Beetle can take the place of a septic tank. Clearly, an education campaign is necessary to complement enforcement of the law.
Municipal governments also need to take responsibility for their role.
The Kirtland Lagoon, for example, was designed more than 60 years ago to service 25 homes. Now, it's serving more than 50, and, over the last four winters, it has nearly overflowed twice into the San Juan River. While a private organization operates the lagoon, the county's lack of oversight allowed this situation. Capital outlay funds have been secured to replace the lagoon, and we hope that work happens swiftly.
But the state and county should be doing more to prevent river pollution in the first place. Take the proposed Payne RV Park and sewage lagoon northeast of Aztec. The plan includes an evaporative sewage lagoon located in an area that flooded last year. Opponents say it drains into two domestic water ditches and the Animas River. And yet the state's Environment Department appears poised to approve a discharge permit for the lagoon. More than 400 residents have signed a petition opposing the lagoon. That alone warrants further investigation.
We acknowledge county officials are working to extend wastewater systems into rural communities. They have the design for a mainline that would connect as many as 300 Flora Vista residents to Farmington's wastewater treatment plant. But the more than $9 million needed to fund the project has yet to be secured, in part because of stiff competition for state and federal funding. County officials point out they have several capital projects that would address river pollution, but county residents don't want to foot the bill.
Tough. The rest of us don't want to worry about what's in our water. This isn't an isolated problem affecting only certain communities or individuals. Such contamination would have far-ranging implications that could cause sickness and damage economic development activities. Seven San Juan County water systems get drinking water from one of the three rivers. And more than 60 percent of the state's surface water flows through the county. We grant that signs posted on the rivers saying, "Enter At Your Own Risk" would be cheaper.