New Mexico Environment Department, EPA release water quality data

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Environment Department on Thursday released results from nine sampling locations on the Animas and San Juan rivers after a plume of toxic mine waste was dumped into the river last week upstream in Colorado.

The results mirror city of Farmington test results released Wednesday showing levels of lead slightly above the state's drinking water standard. The Environment Department's testing showed that other metals were within the standards. City officials stressed today that the city's drinking water has not been affected and is safe to drink.

While the results are encouraging, Bonnie Hopkins, the agriculture agent for the New Mexico State University San Juan County Extension Office, said it is not yet safe for people to use the river water for irrigation, livestock or domestic use. Hopkins said more data must be collected to provide a more complete picture before judgements are made regarding the safety of using water in the stretches of the river exposed to contamination.

The county is currently analyzing a large amount of raw data based on New Mexico samples that the EPA released Thursday night. The data comes from river water samples taken from the New Mexico/Colorado state line to the border of the Navajo Nation starting Aug. 7.

The EPA did not provide analysis of the data Thursday night. A similar data set for samples of Animas River water in Colorado between Silverton and Durango was released early Thursday morning.

During a press conference Thursday in Farmington, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the results indicated water in the Animas River in La Plata County, Colo., has returned to pre-incident conditions.

"It gives us a sense that we are on a different trajectory than we were before, but clearly we need to continue to work, not just short term, to look at every segment of the river moving forward," McCarthy said.

The early lack of data and then the data dumps with little interpretation has caused frustration among farmers and ranchers as well as other people who rely on the Animas River for drinking water.

Paul Bandy, a farmer who serves as a state representative, relies on Animas River water to irrigate more than 200 acres in Aztec.

He has demanded officials show him data that proves the water is not safe for irrigation by Monday or else he will open up the head gates to the two ditches — Sargent and Stacey — that he uses to irrigate his alfalfa and grass hay.

He has also talked to other ditch owners encouraging them to do the same thing.

"I would be surprised if most of the ditches don't open Monday," Bandy said.

Bandy says the data that have been released show the river water is well within the state's irrigation water standards, which allow much higher levels of lead than drinking water standards.

Hopkins said if the ditches are opened it could potentially cause contamination of the fields due to the metals from the slow-moving plume falling out in sediment deposited on the river beds and along ditch walls that were exposed.

John Longworth, a representative for the Office of the State Engineer, said the office could issue an executive order to keep the ditches closed, if necessary.

"We'd love to be able to say 'let it rip,' but we can't," he said.

He said the engineer has not yet issued an executive order because ditch owners voluntarily closed their ditches as soon as they learned of the potential contamination.

Lester Pruett, an Eledge ditch board member, credits an early response to keeping the ditch free of contamination and Jim Rogers, who is on the Jewett Valley Ditch Commission and is a user of the ditch near Hogback, said even though the ditch is probably safe from contamination because of dilution from the San Juan River, it will remain closed until officials say it is safe to open.

Bandy said by opening the ditches up and sending a large amount of water through before irrigating, the sediments could be washed out of the ditches back into the river.

However, Hopkins said many ditches also feed drinking water sources, which would not be contaminated if the head gates were shut before the plume arrived.

"They're taking the public safety into their own hands" if they open the gates, Hopkins said.

The cities of Aztec and Farmington closed pumps along the Animas River after the spill. On Monday, Aztec imposed its first stage of watering restrictions to limit lawn watering, among other things.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the city of Bloomfield began providing water to Aztec. Bloomfield Public Works Director Jason Thomas said the city pumped about 500,000 gallons of water to Aztec on Thursday. The cities have an agreement to provide one another water in the event of an emergency, he said.

The city of Bloomfield, which gets its water from the San Juan River at a spot that was not exposed to contamination, has limited watering of its parks and fields and has asked residents and businesses to voluntarily conserve water.

In a press conference on Thursday in Farmington, McCarthy announced the agency has authorized $500,000 for the delivery of water for irrigation and livestock purposes in New Mexico.

"We know that was an issue and I want to assure everybody that those are the kind of issues that we do collaboratively and they are considered part of the emergency response here and they do not need to go through a claims process," McCarthy said.

She added the agency is working with the state to ensure the funding will be "ongoing and up front."

In her comments, she mentioned meeting with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye on Thursday morning and talking about resources available to the tribe and about how the two entities can work together.

"It was great to sit with him (Begaye) and all the boots on the ground that he has in the Navajo Nation," McCarthy said.

According to a press release from Begaye's office, the private meeting took place in Shiprock and part of the discussion centered on the resources needed by the tribe to provide water to impacted tribal members for drinking, irrigation and livestock purposes.

The release states the primary concern is for the health and safety of the Navajo people who live near the river and for farmers, who will feel the economic impact.

"A lot of people make their money right now, during the harvest. When they are cut off, they don't know what lies ahead economically for them and their families," Begaye said in the release.

A press release from the Office of the Speaker states McCarthy met with Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates.

Bates told McCarthy that some older Navajos may not understand the situation so public education about the contaminated water is important, according to the release.

"My concern is for those who may not fully understand the risks and who may be continuing to use the water for their livestock," Bates said in the release.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.