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Rewind: Officials grapple with sewage problem

Steve Garrison
stgarrison@daily-times.com
Plant operator Anthony Garcia opens the lid to an ultraviolet light system at the Aztec Wastewater Treatment Plant on Dec. 22, 2015. The UV light helps kills bacteria found in water.

Editor's note: The Daily Times' annual “Rewind” series revisits stories we have reported on over the past year. To read more “Rewind” stories, go to daily-times.com. 

FARMINGTON — With all 18 septic pumpers in San Juan County now certified by the New Mexico Environment Department — a step toward addressing the problem of human waste in the county's rivers — local politicians and environmental experts are turning their attention toward replacing Flora Vista's waste water system.

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said Tuesday the county is seeking $9.1 million in capital outlay funding in next year's legislative session to uproot failing septic tanks in Flora Vista.

The plan, one of the county's highest priority capital project, is to connect the city of Farmington's sewage system to the area, according to Carpenter. The first phase would install the main pipeline from Farmington to Flora Vista, and additional funding would be needed to put in the arterials connecting individual residences to the system.

A monitor for an ultraviolet light system is pictured on Tuesday at the Aztec Wastewater Treatment Plant. Ultraviolet light kills bacteria in the water.

As reported by The Daily Times on Feb. 24, a two-year study of contaminants in the San Juan and Animas rivers conducted by the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the San Juan Watershed Group found dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria associated with human waste in both rivers. Officials say the contamination is likely related to leaky septic tanks and illegal waste dumping. Animal waste and rainwater runoff are also potential sources of contamination.

The contamination does not impact the city's drinking water, which is treated, but does pose a risk to recreational water users.

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Daily Times in an interview on Dec. 16 that all known septic pumpers operating in San Juan County have become certified by the state, a step toward addressing the problem of illegal waste dumping.

In May, only two septic companies in the county were certified. San Juan County is now the only county in the state with 100 percent compliance, according to Flynn.

Flynn said he was not certain whether further regulation of the septic pumping industry would curb pollution, but he supported stricter penalties for companies caught illegally dumping human waste.

"If you have gone out somewhere and dumped something in the river, it should not be a simple punishment," Flynn said. "You should not be able to do business in the state of New Mexico. Period."

Flynn said his department supported the county's efforts to replace the failing septic systems in Flora Vista, but said local communities also needed to invest in the project.

"I think the leadership is in place to address these issues," Flynn said. "It's just a question where the money will come from."

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said if the local legislators pooled capital outlay funds for their districts, they would be able to put $3 million toward the project next year. The other $6.1 million would either need to come from the governor's capital outlay funds — Neville described that as a "long shot" — or the state environment department.

Flynn proposed using a mixture of capital outlay funds and low-interest loans to pay for the project.

Ryan Flynn, New Mexico Environment Department cabinet secretary, talks with The Daily Times on Dec. 16 at the newspaper's offices.

Flora Vista residents previously rejected an $8 million loan to replace their septic systems because it would cause a significant increase in water rates, but a smaller loan may be more palatable, according to Flynn.

"This year, we made $45 million in (loans) that have been turned down, and it's not because the communities aren't willing to work with us," Flynn said. "It's not because the communities aren't willing to raise their rates to put skin in the game. ...But they can only do so much. You can't ask people to pay $300 per month on their water bill."

The county is currently working to identify other communities with failing septic systems.

Studies indicate septic systems in Lee Acres and Wild Horse Valley are malfunctioning, and could also be causing human waste to wash into the county's rivers.

Carpenter said Tuesday the county is using a $100,000 state grant to develop a preliminary engineering report for the Totah subdivision south of Farmington. Residents there say leaking septic systems could be contaminating private water wells and the San Juan River, located nearby.

Melissa May is a natural resource specialist for the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, the agency that studied human pollution in the county's rivers.

She said her agency sent out a draft watershed based plan to local partners last week that offers eight proposals, including pasture management, wetland restoration, erosion control and irrigation infrastructure improvements, to begin to address some of the agricultural sources of the pollution.

May previously said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not fund cleanup projects for groups like hers unless there is a watershed-based plan in place.

May said the Gold King Mine spill in August, which released a deluge of contaminated waste water into the Animas River and its tributaries, drew attention away from the E. coli contamination, which poses a more immediate threat to human health.

"I always tell people, the funny thing is that nobody ever cared about the bacteria because it isn't orange," May said, referring to the mustard-yellow color of the water that burst from the Gold King Mine. "People cared about that problem because it was something you can see."

She said the Gold King Mine spill may bring much needed attention to the health of the river, however.

"We hope it gets people thinking about the way our way of life contributes to the landscape we rely on," May said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.