The Middle Rio Grande Valley from Cochiti on the north to San Acacia on the south, is fragile and diverse, and it is where just about a million people call home. The unique Rio Grande Rift geology gives this area its wide range of terrains, from the 10,000-foot mountains rising over the low-lying river Bosque to ancient volcanic escarpments standing guard in the sunsets. This area takes in Sandoval, Bernalillo, Valencia and Socorro counties as well as six pueblo communities.
The new federal rollbacks of many key environmental policies have left many people wondering what to do to help protect the environmental gains made in the last administration from unchecked deregulation of business and industry. Many of those are eager to take advantage of the rollbacks for quicker bucks, at the expense of clean water, air and ecosystem considerations.
There are many ways to get involved and make a green difference. Like Dorothy learned in The Wizard of Oz, there is no place like home. Keep a garden, raise bees, collect rainwater, go solar, grow worms, be mindful of the trail of garbage and pollution left behind as we move through our lives. Conscious living choices aimed at long-term Earth care is part of resisting the short-term Trump worldview. Just because the new Feds want to allow their rich friends to increase profits and even get ahold of public lands to do so, doesn’t mean we must help them on local and regional levels, or in our own homes. Local governments, even neighborhood associations, have a lot of power over how we preserve our natural world.
The greater Albuquerque area has its share of environmental hot spots—on the east near the mouth of Tijeras Canyon is the Gulton Industries underground pollution site; near this mess is the gigantic jet fuel spill under Kirtland Air Force Base; in the Downtown area is the Laun-Dry chemical plume and the Fruit Avenue Superfund site near Edith. But to the south of Downtown is our real ground zero—a strip of industrial zoning that runs parallel to the railroad tracks and I-25, encompassing the San Jose and Mountain View neighborhoods.
Historically these were farming communities along the east side of the Rio Grande. Then in the early 1970s, the Bernalillo County Commission zoned these areas for industrial uses. The area is primarily lower income and covers about 8,400 acres with about 4,500 residents. Homes are intermingled with the city’s only smelly sewage plant, a couple dozen junkyards, gravel and concrete companies, petroleum bulk terminals, along with dozens of other industries not allowed in other parts of Bernalillo County. There are also two more Superfund sites as well. Add in the noise pollution from the arriving and departing Sunport airplanes and the roaring jet engines from Kirtland Air Force Base, and it is clear this area has a disproportionate share of the city’s environmental problems.
Ed Williams is an award-winning public health and environmental reporter at 89.9 KUNM. He keeps an eye on the South Valley’s environmental issues that impact people’s day-to-day lives. We asked him what we can do as individuals to offset these rollbacks? “Go local,” he answered.
“You can’t solve global warming but you can sway the local air quality board,” Williams continued. He cites a recent decision by the city/county air quality board to reject an appeal of a re-permit for a large fuel terminal located about a block from East San Jose Elementary. “The oil company won because the air board doesn’t take in to consideration the cumulative effect of all the polluters when they issue permits; they only consider what that particular plant is doing,” he said. More people showing up and making comments might have swayed the board to look at the overall impact of locating hundreds of potential polluters in the same area in an interconnected way.
Williams said the Laun-Dry plume is another issue he will be keeping up on. This plume is roughly under Tractor Brewing in the Wells Park area. It is concerning because it is only about 35 or so feet from the surface, Williams said. This means the pollutants could make their way to the surface soils and then into the air. Williams said a plan was submitted to assess and remediate the dry-cleaning chemicals that have leeched into the area. To keep up on these and many other important environmental issues, follow Williams at FM 89.9 and at KUNM.org.
The metro area sits atop a craggy basin of ancient water. Prior to the late 1990s, the Albuquerque Basin was thought to have a virtually endless supply of water. But as underground mapping technology improved, it was soon revealed that there was not an infinite reserve of underground water. Almost 30 years ago, city and private wells were going dry and cone depressions formed threatening surface collapse from the now empty caverns underground. Something needed to be done fast. Water engineering sages swung into action, and the San Juan Chama Drinking Water Project started up about 10 years ago. The project processes river water into drinking water for our thirsty population.
“We had a huge problem in the mid-1990s before the San Juan Chama project. But we are in good shape now overall,” stated water guru John Fleck. Fleck has spent years reporting on all aspects of the environment for the Albuquerque Journal, and his passion is water issues. He is currently a professor and the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. He says the Albuquerque basin aquifer has risen anywhere from 15 to 20 feet since the San Juan Chama project took the pressure off to provide the many millions of gallons of water the metro area demands each day. This, he claimed, is due to individuals making a difference. In 1995, the average per person water use was 251 gallons per day. In 2016 it was down to 127 gallons per person per day. “This is an extraordinary achievement. More than a half million people acting individually by doing little things like taking shorter showers, replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants; the cumulative action has had a profound benefit,” Fleck said. He asserted that even if the Feds decide water wasting and pollution is okay from a regulatory standpoint, it is possible through education and individual participation to protect our local natural resources. To keep up with Fleck’s keen insight into New Mexico’s water issues and check out his award-winning book on New Mexico water and why it’s worth fighting for, log on to www.inkstain.net/
One of the things environmental reporter Laura Paskus loves about the Southwest is the wide open sky over seemingly endless views of diverse landscapes. Paskus, a Connecticut native, is the environmental reporter for the NM Political Report. She focuses on climate change and water issues. She recently won a regional award for her outlook piece on how the Trump administration’s policies could impact New Mexico. “With environmental departments—and regulations—already weakened in New Mexico, the state is all the more vulnerable to the potential threats posed by the incoming Trump administration,” she writes in the article.
Locally, she is a little more optimistic about the metro area’s handling of water issues. “There are lots of forward-thinking, smart people planning for our local water future, planning for climate change,” she said. But, she adds, the state and federal government are not, and the new Feds seem determined to actually prevent rational planning for the future based on scientific models. “There is no good reason for us to not be planning for climate change,” Paskus declared. “That means it is up to individuals to step up.” There are city, county and state boards and commissions that make local environmental decisions and policy. “People should be pressing all public officials, all of the time on climate change, instead of debating [with] each other about what is causing it,” Paskus declared. Another way for those overwhelmed by recent federal environmental regulatory setbacks is to connect with the land where you live. “Getting out in the Bosque or the mountains makes you connected and knowledgeable, and that gives you a reason to fight for it,” she said. “Even if it is just a walk around your neighborhood, around a park or green space, even just putting up a bird feeder in your yard makes you a little more connected to nature.” Follow her environmental coverage at nmpoliticalreport.com, and look for her book on climate change due out at the end of the year.