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Second river pollution meeting focuses on San Juan County's wastewater and water treatment plants

Dan Schwartz
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — More than 20 people met Monday at the Farmington Civic Center to discuss wastewater and water treatment plants and a study that identified significant levels of a bacteria in the San Juan and Animas rivers that indicate the presence of human waste.

The gathering was the second in a series of three anticipated public outreach meetings to discuss the findings of the two-year study. In the meeting, state and local officials discussed how state and federal agencies regulate wastewater treatment plants, as well as the safety of drinking water from water treatment plants.

"In the San Juan area, most of the (wastewater) facilities have a very good compliance history," said Barbara Cooney, who works in the New Mexico Environment Department's Surface Water Quality Bureau.

The study, which was presented in late February, analyzed samples collected from four sites along the San Juan and Animas rivers in San Juan County and one at the border of Colorado and New Mexico. Laboratory tests of the samples identified bacteria that indicate the presence of human and animal waste.

But the major source of the pollution is from human feces, not animal waste. A New Mexico State University professor who worked on the study, Geoffrey Smith, said he's conducted three similar studies elsewhere in the state and found that bird feces were the primary pollution source, not human.

In the first outreach meeting in mid-April, officials and residents discussed how septic systems or illegal waste dumping could be causing the fecal pollution. In the third meeting, which has not yet been scheduled, officials hope to discuss how pollution from the agricultural industry could reach the rivers.

The San Juan Watershed Group and San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, both local agencies, worked together on the study to identify land-use practices that contribute to river pollution.

The rivers are already polluted, according to documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sections of the rivers contain too much E. coli, sedimentation, nutrients and phosphorus and parts of them are too cloudy and warm, the documents state.

In the meeting Monday, Cooney said all wastewater treatment plants in the state need a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which the EPA and state Environment Department issue and inspect. The permits regulate pollution coming out of a pipe or a single source, known as point-source pollution.

Municipal wastewater treatment plant operators regularly sample fluids the plants discharge, and the Environment Department also samples the fluids, Cooney said.

But when a plant does not comply with the permit's requirements, the EPA is the final enforcer. That agency can fine a facility up to $137,500 a day or refer them to the Department of Justice for criminal or civil action.

The Farmington wastewater treatment plant was designed to process 6.6 million gallons of waste a day, said Monica Peterson, laboratory director for CH2M, formally known as CH2M Hill. The plant's average flow is approximately 5.5 million gallons a day, said Ron Rosen, CH2M project director.

Even if wastewater treatment plants are not in compliance, water treatment plants remove most viruses and bacteria, such as E. coli, said Peter Nathanson, an official with the state Environment Department's Drinking Water Bureau.

"Yes, you're finding a high percentage of both animal and human bacteria in your study," he said. "But it gets treated."

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.