Officials weigh in on ways to fix river pollution in San Juan County

Dan Schwartz
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — More than 30 people, including residents and government officials, met Monday evening at the Civic Center to discuss human fecal pollution recently identified in San Juan County's rivers.

A two-year study released in February found significant levels of a bacteria in the San Juan and Animas rivers that indicate the presence of human waste. The results have never been found elsewhere in the state, said Geoffrey Smith, a New Mexico State University professor who worked on the study.

Officials involved in the study have said leaking septic systems or illegal waste dumping could be causing the pollution, and these two possibilities dominated the discussion in the meeting.

If people are misusing their septic systems or illegally dumping their waste, the New Mexico Environment Department does not have the resources to stop them, said Don Becker, the owner of Medallion Heating and a septic system designer and installer.

"Are we going to stop the bad guys? No," he said. "It's our job to get everybody educated, so they know what they're looking at."

David Tomko, who was part of the study and worked for the environment department for 26 years, said the goal is to start a discussion that can help the department "do their job." But, he said, the intention of Monday's meeting was not to cast blame.

Among the officials at the event were Jim Vincent, the environment department's liquid waste program manager, and other department heads. Officials with the city of Farmington and the county, as well as Don Moats, owner of DJ's Septic Service, attended. Jim Dumont, who works on U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich's staff, was also present.

Suggestions to solve the river pollution ranged from raising taxes to rearranging the responsibilities of local environment department employees. Several people said the environment department needs more employees in its Farmington field office.

But the sources of pollution can only be fixed once they're identified, Becker said, and failing septic systems are polluting the environment statewide — not only in San Juan County.

Neal Schaeffer, an environment department scientist in the surface water quality bureau, said no septic systems have been officially linked to river pollution in San Juan County.

"We have never known what to fix," he said after the meeting.

In the meeting, Vincent said the environment department has a valuable tool to identify unpermitted septic systems.

In 2005, the department began requiring septic systems to be independently inspected on properties where ownership is being transferred, and this has allowed the department to catch and register approximately 1,400 septic systems that were not permitted or had issues, Environmental Health Bureau Chief Jack King told The Daily Times in late March.

"Even though it may feel like glacial movement sometimes, it's movement in the right direction," Vincent said.

Becker said approximately half of the 100 property transfers he is involved with have unpermitted septic systems.

Many years of problems are causing river pollution, and a solution is going to take time, Vincent said.

But the environment department could staff at least three or four more employees in its Farmington field office, said Moats, the septic service owner. Too many septic tanks are failing in the county for the number of local employees to catch, he said.

"The four people we've got, they can't cover all of San Juan County," he said.

The four environment department employees who are staffed in the Farmington field office include a secretary and three inspectors from the environmental health bureau, which monitors liquid waste, swimming pools and food, Vincent said after the meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, Vincent said the next step should be to assemble a comprehensive plan.

People swim and boat in the county's rivers, and, he said, there's interest in finding a solution.

"This river should not have this fecal matter in it," he said. "That's our driving mission."

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