Researchers will meet with industry, government officials to discuss river pollution

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The researchers behind a study that found significant levels of bacteria indicating the presence of human waste in local rivers are meeting with government and industry officials next week to discuss solutions.

Representatives from the sewage industry, the city of Farmington, San Juan County and the New Mexico Environment Department are expected to attend the meeting.

"What we're trying to do is start a dialogue among these parties," said David Tomko, San Juan Watershed Group coordinator.

The meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Farmington Civic Center, and Melissa May, a San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District natural resource specialist, wants the public to attend.

Tomko and May will also meet with officials Tuesday to consider steps they can take to address the pollution.

If people want to report river pollution, they can do that at Monday's meeting, May said. People will be able to mark areas of concern on a map of the county, she said.

In late February, May and Geoffrey Smith, a New Mexico State University professor, presented the final results of the study, which was conducted in 2013 and 2014.

Smith said before that presentation that he had conducted three similar studies in the state. Those studies found feces from birds was the major source of river pollution, he said at the time.

The San Juan County study identified human waste as the most common bacterium at sample sites in the San Juan and Animas rivers in the county. The results are unique and disturbing, Smith has said.

Bacteria indicating the presence of animal waste were also present in the results, which is normal in most rivers.

Sources of the pollution are not yet certain, and Smith is trying to find money to conduct another study to identify them.

Former environment department spokesman Jim Winchester has said he knows of no evidence to support the theory that septic systems or illegal waste dumping could be sources of the pollution. But they are, Tomko said, among the possible sources.

Legally permitted septic systems in coarse sand or gravelly soils are one possibility, he said. He mentioned a Daily Times story published March 29 that identified Flora Vista, Lee Acres and Wild Horse Valley as areas with failing or improperly installed septic systems due to the characteristics of the soil.

Failing septic systems that are spewing sewage onto the ground are another possible source, he said. And illegal septic waste dumping is another possibility, he said.

"It's really up to the regulatory agencies to do something," Tomko said, "but what we want to do is get the conversation started and get everybody that could provide assistance talking to each other."

That includes local government and industry officials, Tomko said.

The environment department is responsible for permitting and regulating septic systems, but he said it does not have the resources to "police" pollution in the county. He is a former environment department employee.

Environment department officials could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Tomko said The Daily Times has raised awareness about the pollution, and county officials are trying to solve some of the problems. Now, he said, he and others are trying to begin the discussion.

The meeting Monday will be the first of several, May said.

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