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New river water samples to be tested for human waste

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A local environmental group this week finished collecting samples as part of a long-term study that already suggests septic waste may be seeping from sewage systems or being dumped from San Juan County into the San Juan and Animas rivers.

The two-year study includes samples collected from five sites along the two rivers in and just outside the county. The samples are tested for the two bacteria that indicate the presence of human and animal waste, E. coli and Bacteroides.

Initial tests for E. coli from a sampling site across the Colorado state line met that state's and New Mexico's water standards, which means the bacteria originates downstream, in San Juan County, the study found.

Probes at the five sites tested for the presence of waste from several species, including humans. All 40 of the first samples collected at one site west of Waterflow tested positive for human bacteria found in feces, nearly all 40 samples collected in Farmington also tested positive and 26 out of 40 samples collected in Aztec were positive, according to the study.

The samples collected Monday need to be analyzed, and the first year's worth of results are currently being verified in a second laboratory, said Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District natural resource specialist and project coordinator. She said her colleagues are using a new method to test the rivers, and they need to be careful.

"We just want to make sure that everything we're finding is a result of there actually being that serious of a problem," she said, rather than spikes from a new method.

But the study's preliminary results indicate that septic tanks could be leaking and/or companies are illegally dumping waste into the rivers, she said.

The San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers exceed state standards for E. Coli bacteria, said David Tomko, a coordinator with the San Juan Watershed Group, a partner of May's agency.

This is new and troubling news for Four Corners Economic Development CEO Ray Hagerman, whose organization studies the regional economy.

Local officials have been trying to market the rivers to boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts, but they should know first if the rivers are healthy, Hagerman said.

"I don't think we'd want to tell the whole world how wonderful our rivers are if they're contaminated," he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.