As Albuquerque’s Water Utility Authority (WUA) works to bring down arsenic levels in the city’s drinking water, the importance of doing so depends on who you ask.
The WUA is taking steps to comply with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent requirement that all drinking water have a concentration of no more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic. To put that into perspective, if the city’s water supply took the form of pennies, it would mean that, of one billion pennies, only 10 would be allowed to be arsenic.
The city was in compliance with the EPA’s former standard of 50 ppb but the Water Utility Authority had to request an extension from the New Mexico Environmental Department because it was unable to meet the tougher standard by 2005, the year the new regulation was supposed to go into effect.
Albuquerque citizen Cindy Jones is worried about the delay, and is concerned about the health effects of having over 10 ppb of arsenic in her water. Jones notes that the WUA’s 2005 Water Quality Report says “some people who drink water containing arsenic [at greater than 10 ppb] over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
However, Steven Finch, a senior hydrologist at John Shomaker and Associates Water-Resource and Environmental Consultants, says the previous 50 ppb standard was strict enough. “I haven’t seen or heard of any real evidence that there were problems with the way the previous standards worked,” Finch says. “You’re talking about a giant burden on the taxpayers for very little extra benefit for public health and safety.”
According to WUA’s 2005 Water Quality Report, in order to gets the city's water, which contains naturally occurring arsenic, up to the new standard, the WUA is taking several steps, including building more pump stations in order to blend water from higher arsenic concentration zones (with arsenic levels up to 35 ppb) with water from lower arsenic concentration zones (down to as low as 2 ppb), thus lowering the overall level of arsenic in the drinking water of the community as a whole. A new Arsenic Removal Demonstration Plant will also be built on the Westside and the construction of a drinking water treatment plant near Montaño and Chappell will be completed in the hopes that both of the new structures will help the city meet the new federal standards. According to Barbara Gastian, water quality program manager with WUA, the arsenic removal plant should be finished by March 2007, with the water treatment plant following suit in summer 2008. The WUA hopes to bring Albuquerque into compliance with all of the EPA’s requirements by December 2008.
Bringing Albuquerque up to code is estimated by the WUA to cost the city $30 to $40 million.