A Day with the Taos Water Sentinels

Teresa Seamster,
Northern New Mexico Group

There is not much to top spending a day in the late-summer sunshine, wading and checking the waters of some of our northern rivers.

Eric and Nora Patterson are the linchpins of the Taos Water Sentinels. Skilled at all aspects of sampling and monitoring water quality, they keep records on the rivers of Northern New Mexico, train volunteer monitors, team up with Amigos Bravos and Taos High School students to provide vital water measurements for lab analysis and send results to the state Environment Department.

Our state is strapped for funding when it comes to monitoring our many streams and rivers. The Pattersons have secured their reputation with the state with their reliable data collection and analysis and their attention to detailed protocol when sampling and shipping. Part of that protocol is taking “custody” of every sample shipment, noting who took the sample, who received the sample for shipping, and who provided delivery to the lab.

When every step is recorded, the chances of the EPA lab in Alamosa receiving a degraded sample resulting in useless results are almost nil, and the Sentinels can be confident that their results are accurate before going into the state’s river database. When training new monitors, Eric always stresses: “Bad data is worse than no data. Take your time and get it right.”

One site tested primarily for E. coli is the Rio Hondo, flowing past Taos Ski Valley.

The process of taking water samples is deceptively easy. It takes under 10 minutes to scramble down the bank to the river’s edge, dip the requisite two or three (depending on which tests will be run) labeled sample bottles into the flow and cap them tightly, hand to an assistant, and then use the water meter to measure:

  • Water temperature (can range on the upper Rio Hondo from 6° C to 17° C down on the Rio Grande)
  • pH units (often in the normal range 5.5-7.5)
  • Dissolved oxygen
  • Electrical conductivity (microsiemens/cm)
  • Hardness (ppm)
Nora & Teresa below the John Dunn Bridge with the last samples.
Nora & Teresa below the John Dunn Bridge with the last samples.

As the samples are taken, the assistant records the date and time and general description of the site and water conditions. Important factors noted include any amount of precipitation in the past 24 hours (storm greater than 2.5 centimeters to showers less than 0.85 centimeters), the appearance of the water (clear, cloudy, foamy, etc), water conditions (normal, flooded, high, low, dry), any odors and type of sediment on the river bottom (gravel, sand, mud-silt, algae coating).

Then the monitors clamber back up the bank, call the dogs  — there were three who came with us on this day who obligingly stayed out of the test area — and drive on to the next site.

This monitoring day in late August included visiting five sites. The four on the Rio Hondo started with the Cuchilla Campground then went further upstream to the Taos Ski Village sewage treatment plant effluent pipe, then upstream from the day-care center at the Ski Village, and finally 10 yards upstream from the confluence of the Rio Hondo with the Rio Grande. The final test was done about 5 meters downstream from the John Dunn Bridge on the Rio Grande.

Four hours after starting out at 9:15 a.m., we were finished and back in Valdez. All samples were in the cooler with ice, and Eric was already back with his samples from the Rio Fernando de Taos.

The Taos County officials who came were excited about the tests. Tasked with stream-side and arroyo cleanups that can see collections of trash of more than 25 tons in one day, both Ed and Lorenzo wanted to know more about what washes into the water, and how much results can tell you.

Nora told them water analysis can detect much more than E. coli, nitrates, phosphate and ammonia, it can also indicate cocaine usage, estrogen levels and residues from campfires.

The day was an immense education in beautiful weather and surroundings. With a teacher like Nora, who wastes no time on non-essential information but aids understanding with a wealth of demonstration — all schooling should be like this!

To volunteer for Water Sentinels or learn more about testing water near you, contact Eric Patterson at eepatt@gmail.com.

A Day with the Taos Water Sentinels