River contamination related to human waste worries local leaders

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Local leaders are concerned about the initial results of a long-term study of the San Juan and Animas rivers that is finding high levels of bacteria associated with human waste.

"If it's illegal dumping, then we need to be sure that that will be controlled. If it's a failing septic system, then we need to take the steps necessary to control those systems," Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts said.

On Monday, the San Juan Watershed Group and San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, partners in the study, collected samples from five sites along the two rivers and just outside the county as part of a continuing two-year study. The samples are tested for E. coli and Bacteroides, bacteria that indicate the presence of human and animal waste.

The first year's results are now being analyzed in a second laboratory. They have serious implications, officials say.

Initial tests for E. coli from a sampling site north of Colorado's border met that state's and New Mexico's water standards, meaning the bacteria is introduced downstream, somewhere in San Juan County, the study found.

The five sampling sites tested for waste from several species, including humans. All 40 samples initially collected at a site west of Waterflow tested positive for the human bacteria found in feces. Most of the 40 samples collected in Farmington tested positive for the bacteria. In Aztec, 26 out of 40 samples tested positive.

Officials involved in the study say the preliminary results suggest two sources for the pollution — leaky septic tanks and waste dumping.

The San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers already exceed state E. coli standards, says David Tomko, San Juan Watershed Group coordinator.

Some of study's results are being discussed within the New Mexico Environment Department, said communications director, Jim Winchester.

"We are still evaluating what options the NMED has and/or how we will proceed to work with local groups to identify the exact sources and address the problem," he wrote late Friday in a response to an email The Daily Times sent on Tuesday.

But Winchester did not address many of the questions in the email. The Daily Times asked what action the Environment Department takes to prevent river pollution, how much money the department budgets for enforcement and how many enforcement actions the department has made in San Juan County in the past 10 years, among others.

Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein said human waste in the two rivers does concern him, but it's a problem for the Environment Department to resolve.

"Whatever we can do to work with the New Mexico Environment Department to make the water safer, I'd certainly be willing," he said.

County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner said he wants to know if the state has any plans to address the bacteria levels and if it can suggest any action the county could take. But whether it is the county's duty or not, he said, the county needs to help. "That's a real problem," he said of the potential pollution.

Efforts on Friday to reach Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge were unsuccessful.

Roberts and Eckstein said the bacteria are not a drinking-water hazard for their citizens. Both their cities' water treatment plants can adequately cleanse the water before its consumed, they said.

The study's results should be finalized in January or early February and a public meeting will be held to present them, said Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District natural resource specialist and project coordinator.

"It's certainly a cause for concern," Roberts said, "and I think we want to be looking at ways to identify the sources and eliminate the sources."

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