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Officials working on plan to resolve pollution in San Juan County rivers

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Now that a series of public meetings has been completed, officials involved in a study that found significant levels of a bacteria indicating the presence of human feces in San Juan County rivers are trying to complete a plan detailing how to eliminate the pollution.

"We have so many problems, coming up with a plan for all of them is really difficult," said David Tomko, coordinator of the San Juan Watershed Group.

In 2002, a New Mexico Environment Department scientist, Neal Schaeffer, studied the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers in the county and found high levels of E. coli. Those results led to the formation of Tomko's group.

As recently as 2014, the federal Environmental Protection Agency considered the Animas and La Plata rivers from the state line to Hogback impaired because of E. coli.

But the county's three rivers are also polluted in other ways, according to 2012 to 2014 EPA listings. A section of the Animas has unacceptable levels of phosphorus, nutrients and sedimentation, and from the state line to Farmington, it's too warm and cloudy. The La Plata is too high in nutrients, and the San Juan is too cloudy and carries too much sedimentation.

The two-year study released in late February analyzed samples collected from four sites along the San Juan and Animas rivers in the county and one at the Colorado-New Mexico border. Laboratory tests detected bacteria associated with human and animal waste, but they found human feces polluted the rivers the most.

After presenting the study, Tomko's group and the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District hosted three public outreach meetings, the last one on Monday, to discuss the study's results and the rivers' pollution. The local groups partnered in the study.

The plan they're working to complete by fall is called the Lower Animas Watershed Base Plan, and there are five others being compiled in the state. Most other states have many more, Tomko said.

Melissa May, a San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District natural resource specialist, said the EPA won't fund cleanup projects for groups like hers and Tomko's unless they have a watershed-based plan in place.

"It basically shows that you've identified a problem," she said. It also shows broad and narrow ways the agencies plan to resolve the problem, she said.

Two of the problems in the Animas watershed within New Mexico that will be identified in the plan are the human, and wildlife and livestock fecal matter contamination in the rivers, she said. But there will be others, too.

The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department awarded the agencies a $287,540 grant — which the New Mexico Environment Department administered — to help complete the recent river study and compile the plan, May said.

They are still drafting that plan and hope to present more public meetings around September to talk about it.

"We are definitely going to want to hear from the general public and land owners along the river as the process continues," she 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.