Scientist seeks money for another San Juan County river study

Dan Schwartz
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — One of the scientists involved in a two-year study that found significant levels of bacteria in San Juan County rivers that indicate the presence of human waste said he's looking for funding to begin another study of the rivers.

"I just want to patch a few groups together to use the impetus of these studies to keep this ball rolling," said Geoffrey Smith, a New Mexico State University professor.

The 2013 and 2014 study results were presented at San Juan College on Thursday night to a crowd of at least 40 people. Many residents, and city and county officials attended.

The study analyzed samples collected from four sites on the San Juan and Animas rivers in San Juan County, and one at the Colorado-New Mexico border. Results from both years found human feces bacteria was the most common bacterium, according to the study.

But city officials say residents should not worry about the safety of their water because water treatment plants sufficiently purify all drinking water.

Smith has conducted three other studies in New Mexico similar to the recent one, but those studies found feces from birds were the major source of river pollution, not humans, he said. San Juan County's results are uncommon, he said.

But officials involved in the study aren't certain what's introducing the human bacteria into the rivers. Some have said leaking septic tanks or illegal waste dumping could be the source, but Jim Winchester, the former New Mexico Environment Department spokesman, has said he doesn't know of any evidence to support that contention.

The new study would be smaller and more focused, Smith said. It could identify the sources of contamination, he said.

The microbial source tracking study cost $305,932 to conduct, said Melissa May, a San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District natural resource specialist. Her group and the San Juan Watershed Group, both local agencies, partnered in the study.

BHP Billiton provided $262,553 in funding for the study, a grant that is a byproduct of a lawsuit, May said. The Sierra Club sued BHP and the Public Service Company of New Mexico, and the parties settled, requiring the two entities to set aside $1 million for environmental conservation projects, May said.

The Environment Department also contributed a $25,456 grant, while the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango contributed a $16,923 grant and Trout Unlimited donated $1,000, May said.

Smith said he has met with Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts and BHP officials to discuss funding for another study, and he identified the Environment Department as another potential source of funding.

Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said he'd consider any "reasonable actions" that could address the river pollution, including funding. "I would definitely not close the door to our participation in funding," he said.

BHP officials outlined a process by which Smith could obtain funds from the company for another study, but no decision has been made, Norman Benally, spokesman for BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal, said.

When asked whether Environment Department officials would consider funding another river study, spokeswoman Jill Turner said the department has a process for applying for grants, and funding is available.

But in the meantime, May said she already has plenty of data to analyze. That is her priority, she said.

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