Aztec implements water restrictions as everyone waits for test results

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Bloomfield officials are offering to share water — which they pump from the San Juan River at a point that was not exposed to a plume of water polluted with mine waste — if the water exposed to the contamination remains too toxic to treat for an extended period. And the city will impose water restrictions on its residents to help out others in need, if necessary, the city's mayor said Monday.

"That's just to be safe," Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein said.

On Wednesday, an Environmental Protection Agency team accidentally ruptured a containment plug at the Gold King Mine above Silverton, Colo. An estimated 3 million gallons of water polluted with heavy metals rushed into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River. It flowed into the San Juan River in Farmington where the rivers come together on Saturday and entered Utah on Monday.

Aztec and Farmington closed their pumps along the Animas River following the spill, and five rural water user associations also shut down their operations to protect their water supplies.

Aztec has 73 million gallons of water in three reservoirs, which allows the city about 50 days of water without pumping from the Animas River before it runs dry, Aztec City Manager Josh Ray said. But the city's already used five days, he said. On Monday, the city imposed its first level of water restrictions.

Farmington has about 90 days of water in its single reservoir without pumping from the Animas River, Public Works Director David Sypher said.

Many rural water user associations have fewer days of reserves.

While the EPA hasn't released many details on the concentrations of toxic metals spilled into the Animas River, preliminary data released on Sunday found arsenic levels peaked at 300 times the normal level and lead peaked at 3,500 times the normal level in the Durango area. EPA officials said those levels dropped quickly after the plume of contamination passed.

Extended exposure to those metals in high concentrations poses a significant health threat to humans and animals. But the concentrations reported Sunday in the Durango area remain in an area for only a short while, said Deborah McKean, EPA Region 8 toxicology and human health and risk assessment chief.

EPA Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath declined to "speculate" on what levels of pollution will remain from heavy-metal laden sediment that fell out of the slow-moving plume as it passed downstream. "We are seeing a trajectory toward pre-event conditions," he said.

He said the EPA will continue to sample and model the pollution levels. "We are absolutely committed to the longer term," McGrath said.

The results of testing along the Animas River in San Juan County should be ready on Wednesday, said Mark Hayes, an EPA on-scene coordinator for Region 6, in an interview Tuesday after a public meeting at the Farmington Civic Center.

"They should be definitive results," he said.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said in the meeting that he's flown over the Animas River three times — most recently on Monday — and he has not seen any abnormal wildlife activity. He also said the mustard color in the water is fading.

In the meeting, state officials encouraged residents not to water fields or allow livestock to drink the water. And if crops or cattle die from the pollution, New Mexico Department of Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said his department will try to get their owners reimbursed.

"Document it," he said. "Document it."

The preliminary heavy-metal levels reported on Sunday would be too high for Aztec's water treatment plants to clean, Ray said. If the pollution prevented the city from pumping water out of the Animas River for 120 days or longer, it would rely on Bloomfield for "a lot" of water, he said. Even then, he said, Aztec would still pay to truck in water.

A line connects Aztec's and Bloomfield's water sources so in emergencies the communities can exchange water. Ray expects the line to be operational — it currently has a dead spot — by Tuesday morning. Then, he said, Aztec may begin pulling water from Bloomfield.

Bloomfield has one reservoir — and only about eight days of reserves — but it is pumping from the San Juan River upstream of its confluence with the Animas River, Eckstein said.

"And that's why we may be offering it to our neighbors," he said, adding that the communities are in this crisis together.

Farmington is directly connected to the San Juan River by a line, and it has water rights to the river, Sypher said. The system would need "quick upgrades" before it would be operational, but that is Farmington's current contingency plan if testing shows Animas River water remains too toxic to treat for an extended period of time, he said.

He said many rumors about the levels of toxic metals in the Animas River exist, but until the city has test results from the river that conclusively say what they are, drafting a more specific action plan is difficult.

The city's water treatment plant can clean some levels of heavy metals but only to an extent, he said.

Sypher said Farmington is not currently considering water restrictions, but its officials ask that residents conserve water voluntarily.

"Of course this mining incident is of concern for us, but at this point, we don't have the information we need to say that this is going to last beyond our capacity," he said. He added, "We just need to be patient for a couple more days until we get our test results."

Many of the managers of rural water user associations in San Juan County say they don't have the equipment to remove heavy metals from drinking water pumped out of the Animas River. And five of the associations stopped pumping water because of the pollution.

Rick Mitchell manages the Flora Vista Mutual Domestic Water Association, which supplies almost 5,000 residents with water. It pumps its water from wells near the Animas River. State and federal officials have asked people with wells in the rivers' floodplains to have their water tested. The association's storage tank holds 300,000 gallons of water, which would last about a day, he said.

Mitchell ordered the association to stop pumping from its wells Thursday morning before the plume of contamination arrived and has spent about $7,000 since then buying water from Aztec and Farmington.

"It sure has cost us a lot of money," he said.

He said he will likely impose water restrictions on Tuesday.

Many other water user associations are also facing short reserves and considering conservation methods. They also may soon begin buying water from other sources.

But all the managers of municipal and rural water reserves along sections of rivers that were exposed to the pollution say they are waiting on test results to determine when they can turn their pumps back on.

"People are scared," said Lloyd Ayliffe, who manages the Blanco Water Users Association. The association pumps water from the San Juan River from a spot above its confluence with the Animas River that was not exposed to the plume of pollution.

"We're getting a lot of calls," he said, "and they just don't know what's going on."

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