NM Environment Department: Drinking water is safe, but use caution when swimming in polluted rivers

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — People shouldn't worry about their drinking water following a study that found significant levels of a bacteria in San Juan County rivers that indicate the presence of human feces, but they should use caution when swimming in the rivers, a state official said.

"You want to be careful with any kind of primary activity in those waters," said James Hogan, New Mexico Environment Department surface water quality bureau chief.

The New Mexico Environment Department categorizes recreational exposure to river pollution in two ways: secondary contact and primary contact.

Secondary contact includes activities like fishing or wading, and the county's rivers still meet the standards for activities where ingesting the raw water is unlikely, Hogan said.

But for primary contact — which includes activities such as swimming, boating or others where swallowing river water is more likely — the county's rivers sometimes exceed standards in stretches around Farmington and more regularly downstream of the city, Hogan said.

But Farmington is an urban area, he said. The advice he'd have for residents here is the same he'd have for residents in Albuquerque, he said.

"These elevated levels of bacteria in urban water — such as the areas you have going through Farmington — are pretty common," he said.

Also, fecal bacteria from humans does not pose any greater health risk than bacteria from other animals, he said.

Local government officials agree that residents shouldn't worry about their drinking water because treatment plants, which have to meet state and federal standards, thoroughly purify the water. Many officials deferred to the Environment Department when asked if they had concerns about using the rivers for recreation.

Many have also said they'd consider funding another study to identify where the pollution is coming from.

Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes and Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein have said they are open to the possibility of funding another study. And County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said he would submit a funding request to the commission. Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge did not return calls placed to her cell phone Thursday and Friday seeking comment.

"Even though it's not our jurisdiction — it's the Environment Department's jurisdiction — the county still wants to assist in identifying the sources," Carpenter said.

Environment Department spokeswoman Jill Turner has said the department has a process for applying for grants to fund studies, and funding is available.

Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance executive director, said the problem tracks back to the bad job the Environment Department does monitoring septic systems. It appears, he said, there's a relationship between oversight of septic systems and human waste in the rivers.

"What it comes down to is, 'Who's regulating this problem,'" he said. "It's a symptom."

He said he'd also support a follow-up study to find out where the human feces is coming from — though the alliance's budget is small.

But the issue is more complicated than Eisenfeld makes it seem, Turner said.

When septic tanks are installed, they need to be permitted through the Environment Department, installed by a certified contractor and inspected by department staff, she said. Permitting and properly installing septic tanks does cost money, she said.

"We can't track what we don't know about," she said, "and we certainly don't have the people to drive up and down the streets and ensure people aren't putting in illegal septic tanks."

In the past few years, the Environment Department has also helped fund improvements to aging water treatment facilities, she said.

Carpenter said the Environment Department is "grossly" understaffed in the county. The department's former spokesman, Jim Winchester, has said the department has 11 full-time employees at its local office.

But funding for more Environment Department staff comes from the Legislature, Turner said. The department will naturally have more employees in communities with larger populations, she said.

"It's just been a real challenge," Carpenter 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.