Lots of water issues on tap in New Mexico

By John Buchser, Chapter Water chair

The Rio Grande Chapter water committee met in Valdez in late August, overlooking Eric and Nora Patterson’s acequia-irrigated garden. Acequias are the finest example of water-sharing in New Mexico. Examples abound that more “modern” water-management strategies have challenges in abundance.

Here are some of the issues our water team is working on:

San Augustin Plains Ranch Water Grab

The third iteration of a request to transfer huge quantities of water (about half of Albuquerque’s water use) from the San Augustin Plains into the Rio Grande Valley is making its way through the water rights transfer process at the state engineer’s office. The technical hang-up on the first two requests was that there was no clear destination for the water, but that appears to be changing — investors in the Santolina project west of Albuquerque are probably banking on that water. Not good news for the residents in Socorro and Catron counties, whose wells are likely to go dry.

WCS Mixed-Waste (radioactive) Dump at Eunice

Waste Control Systems has applied for a New Mexico groundwater permit near Eunice. The temporary storage at near ground level of mixed waste — which means a hodge-podge of chemicals and radioactive waste — is not very temporary, as no permanent solution exists for these waste products. Uranco already operates a storage facility for used fuel rods at this location, so Waste Control is looking at this far-from-civilization location as a promising solution. But if waste is buried in 10-foot holes with 3-foot berms, and we get the remnants of a big hurricane, a 20-inch rainfall may spread this stuff all over the place, gradually soaking into our aquifer (not to mention creating a big wasteland).

The WIPP project near Carlsbad is looking like a long-term disposal site for mixed industrial waste, despite this not being how it was sold to the public. This is attracting more waste-disposal companies to the area. We will be facing another long regulatory process starting in 2018 for another ground-level storage project near WIPP proposed by Holtec.

State Groundwater Rules Changes

The first significant change to New Mexico’s groundwater rules is underway. Club volunteers and allied organizations attended Environment Department hearings last year, and the department accommodated some of our concerns before the proposed changes were submitted to the Water Quality Control Commission.

The proposed changes set out allowed limits of pollutants in our groundwater. Many are not being changed, but for some pollutants the limits are being weakened, and some harmful pollutants regulated by EPA and California have been left off the list altogether.

The Environment Department also proposes to enact standards that could expose 10 times as many people to cancer risk than the EPA and some other states do.

Another change would allow lifetime variances from water quality regulations that would allow industry to pollute for the life of a facility, rather than review variances every five years in a public process, as is currently required.

Other changes would allow “amendments” to permits to change requirements for reporting, sampling, monitoring and other important aspects of regulations.

Our thanks to Amigos Bravos, New Mexico Environmental Law Center and the Gila Resources Information Project for providing testimony as these changes are considered. Technical written testimony from regulated industries and environmental groups can be viewed at www.env.nm.gov.

You will have an opportunity to speak at the Water Quality Control Commission’s hearing on the proposal Nov. 14, 15 and 16 (see dairy story above for details).

Water Sentinels

Eric Patterson is continuing his excellent work educating young folks about how to test for water quality. He has extended his testing to Santa Fe, working with the Teresa Seamster and the Santa Fe Girls School (see story, Page 6), where samples were examined for personal-care products, pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors — rather expensive testing ($1,200/sample). To donate to the Rio Grande Chapter’s efforts, please go to riograndesierraclub.org/donate.

Thanks to Amigos Bravos, where Shannon Romeling has been working to identify the high E. coli levels on the Rio Fernando in the Taos area (cows, leaky septic tanks, but where?).

We need your help in identifying students in the Roswell area, who could expand their interest in science by extending the baseline data that Eric and Ray Shortridge obtained this year.

Contact Eric Patterson at eepatt@gmail.com to volunteer or find out how you can help.

Featured image: photo of Taos Water Sentinels by Eric Patterson.

Lots of water issues on tap in New Mexico