Earlier this year the Rio Grande became a water lifeline for everyone living in the Albuquerque metro area. The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project is intended to help alleviate the accelerating drain of the aquifer under the city. The water sources are blended together in the city’s reservoir tanks and sent out in hundreds of miles of pipes to a faucet near you.
Santa Fe is in the process of building its own river drinking water treatment plant. In the next couple of years, that city will depend on its share of San Juan-Chama water flowing through the Rio Grande to provide water to its residents as well.
Well, lots of poop to start with. According to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau, bird, dog and human fecal matter make up the bulk of organic solids found in the raw river water flowing through the city limits. Not much can be done about wild bird droppings, and increased septic tank regulations help with the human waste. The dog poop problem comes from about 100,000 dogs within city limits that generate about 20 tons of feces a day. When it rains, the storm water washes unscooped dog feces into drains that empty into the river. (Which is one reason why it’s important to scoop your dog’s poop.)
Over the summer, New Mexico river conservation organization Amigos Bravos released the results of a water quality study. The samples were taken from the riverside drains at various points from Algodones, N.M., to Bridge Boulevard in Southwest Albuquerque. (The riverside drains are filled with the same water as the river.) Along with the organic solids, seven pharmaceuticals and personal care products were detected. These included acetaminophen, DEET, an anti-seizure medication, a tranquilizer, caffeine, an antibiotic and a sunscreen ingredient. The results were similar to results from other studies conducted in the last few years.
Amigos Bravos requested that the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority routinely test for pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. The Water Authority agreed to begin monitoring for these types of chemicals in both the raw river and in the treated water.
John Stomp, water resources manager for the Water Authority, says residents have no cause for concern. The San Juan-Chama water treatment plant uses state-of-the-art technology to clean the river water. In addition to the EPA’s mandated steps for processing drinking water, the plant runs ozone and carbon filtration systems not required under federal safe drinking water standards. But at a recent press conference the Water Authority admitted that current treatment processes aren't equipped to remove pharmaceuticals from the waste stream that’s put back into the river, according to Michael Jensen of Amigos Bravos.
It’s not just the Rio Grande water that’s under the microscope. In 2008, an Associated Press analysis found pharmaceutical traces in drinking water that supplies at least 51 million Americans and in many waterways. The drugs ranged from antibiotics to psychiatric drugs to endocrine-disrupting sex hormones. The studies show that in public drinking water coming from either river or well water, the biggest source of pharmaceutical residue is human excretion. But, according to the report, manufacturers, health care facilities and residents also send unused drugs down the drains and into rivers and streams.
“The impacts are unknown. There are no hard answers whether the pharmaceuticals are a problem. We are still studying what the problems are and how well the new plant will be able to remove them.”
Michael Jensen, Amigos Bravos
The Rio Grande starts as a trickle of snowmelt high up in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. As it moves south into New Mexico it picks up more rain and snowmelt from its tributaries. The river nourishes farms, wildlife and fish. Just below El Vado Dam, the Rio Chama carries allocated Colorado San Juan waters to the Rio Grande for Albuquerque and other downstream municipalities’ use. It also picks up storm drainage water and wastewater from communities along its banks. These storm waters sweep up a broad range of chemicals from residential, industrial and agricultural runoff. To add to the problem, New Mexico is a drought state. According to a 2004 study done by the Environmental Microbiology Research Program at Texas A&M, drought concentrates pathogens in surface drainage and storm water that eventually drain into the river.
Española, Bernalillo and Rio Rancho are among dozens of communities and industrial entities that discharge their processed sewer wastewater—along with drainage and storm water—directly in the Rio Grande upstream from the San Juan-Chama project’s pumping station (just south of the Alameda Bridge). Santa Fe, Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory dump wastewater into tributaries that drain into the Rio Grande, according to the state Environment Department.
Albuquerque’s wastewater treatment facility, the Southside Water Reclamation Plant located in the far South Valley, is the state’s largest treatment plant that dumps into the river. To help the nasty river water downstream, the Water Authority started a $7.4 million makeover at the plant in mid-September, which treats more than 50 million gallons of waste water per day. The facility uses chlorine gas to disinfect effluent before it's discharged into the Rio Grande, but as part of the overhaul it will switch to a disinfection system that relies on ultraviolet light.
There are no water quality standards for pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. This means wastewater treatment facilities, agricultural operations and drinking water suppliers do not have to test for these compounds in order to meet requirements in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. That’s according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of contaminants that are required to be tested for in drinking water supplies. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center says there are also no maximum contamination levels for pharmaceuticals under New Mexico’s drinking water regulations.
During a tour of the treatment plant by the Alibi, Water Resources Manager John Stomp said the Water Authority does not anticipate finding high levels of drugs in raw or treated river water. Still, the Water Authority will participate in a yearlong study by the American Water Works Association’s Water Research Foundation to appraise the effectiveness of filter techniques in removing pharmaceuticals from water.
Scientists, doctors and the EPA say there are no confirmed human risks associated with consuming minute concentrations of drugs. But those experts also agree that health dangers cannot be ruled out, especially given the emerging research, according to the Associated Press study.
The raw water may look and smell bad, Stomp says, but the Rio Grande is not as polluted as many other rivers being used for drinking water in the United States. One of the reasons is that the Rio Grande flows through several Native American pueblos upstream. During permit hearings, the EPA gives a great deal of weight to the demands of the Native American authorities, especially regarding the levels of pollutants in treated wastewater and in all storm waters that flow into their land.
The Rio Grande is used in ceremonies where people may bathe or drink the raw water. The Town of Bernalillo’s wastewater dumps just north of Sandia Pueblo boundaries and has one of the strictest wastewater discharge permits in the state. In October 1996, the Tenth Federal Court of Appeals ruled against the City of Albuquerque, saying Isleta Pueblo, located 13 miles downstream from the city, had legal authority to enforce stricter water quality standards on those dumping upstream. The city appealed the case to the federal Supreme Court. When the court declined to hear the case, it, in effect, upheld Isleta's right to dictate Albuquerque's water quality.
Rio Rancho has two discharge permits to dump into the Rio Grande. The permits, which allow up to 667,000 gallons a day to be discharged in the river, are undergoing a renewal process. Rio Rancho has been cited in past years for violating its discharge permit at Chamisa Hills Country Club, where ducks were found dead from botulism.
No wastewater system is perfect, and problems can arise when partially treated or untreated effluent is discharged into the river. In case this accident occurs in Rio Rancho’s system, Stomp says the Water Authority can shut down the pumping station quickly, thereby eliminating the risk of pulling in untreated water.
Jensen of Amigos Bravos agrees that the authority is trying to do everything it technically can to provide clean water. But the issue of pharmaceuticals in drinking water is relatively new.
“The impacts are unknown," he says. "There are no hard answers whether the pharmaceuticals are a problem. We are still studying what the problems are and how well the new plant will be able to remove them.”
Jensen says a huge positive outcome of the pharmaceutical study is that the Water Authority has agreed to monitor the drug problem in the city’s drinking water, and a dialogue has begun.
Consider ways to help our water supply here.