A new study may make Rio Rancho residents swallow hard.
Former New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Jon Adams funded an investigation that found high levels of silica, a naturally occurring chemical compound of silicon and oxygen, in two of Rio Rancho's private wells. "The test results showed these wells had five to seven times the average level of silica normally found in public drinking water," Adams says. "I was a little bit surprised because I didn't expect Rio Rancho's water to be contaminated, but now we really have to be concerned."
What's all the fuss about silica? Adams says high levels in drinking water is highly toxic to lab animals, and, if the silica in the water is coming from the air, there could be serious health risks to residents.
"There are studies that show silica in the air can cause [the lung disease] silicosis in humans," Adams says. "Even if the silica isn't coming from the air, the fact that high levels of silica in drinking water is toxic to animals should make people worry about the risks it could pose to people."
Silica is a component of many of the earth's rocks and it's the primary compound in sand. While high levels may be dangerous, silica in drinking water is nothing new, especially in the Southwest. Laura Bexfield, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says the Rio Grande Valley has higher than normal levels of silica in its groundwater. "Silica gets in the groundwater from the rocks that happen to be in the aquifer where the water is," Baxfield says. "In this area, we have rocks that tend to release silica more easily than in other parts of the country."
The owners of the two wells where high levels of silica were found agreed to let Adams test their water, but didn't want their names or the location of their wells released.
Adams, who announced this month he's running to replace Tom Udall in New Mexico's third congressional district, sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking them to investigate the cause of the excess silica.
If Adams doesn't hear back from the EPA, he says he'll conduct the investigation himself or with the help of other law firms. "There aren't a lot of studies on Rio Rancho's groundwater," Adams says. "In general, water quality is something I care about." Although the wells were privately owned, Adams says he's still worried about whether the high levels of silica could be in Rio Rancho's public wells or in other private ones. "It's especially important if we find out the silica is coming from the air," Adams says. "That would affect more people than just the ones who have wells."
With the test results coming on the heels of his run for Congress, Adams, who lives in Santa Fe, says his willingness to do the study wasn't a publicity stunt. "Most of Rio Rancho isn't in New Mexico's third district, but this is still something that's important to me."
Rio Rancho Environmental Programs Manager Marian Wrage isn't ready to sound the panic alarm just yet. "Silica isn't a primary or secondary contaminate according to the EPA," Wrage says. "Primary contaminates are things that can cause health problems, like arsenic or lead, and secondary contaminates have to do with aesthetics, like how the water looks or tastes."
The EPA and Larry Webb, head of Rio Rancho's utilities operations and environmental programs, were unable to comment by press time.
Rio Rancho Communications Officer Peter Wells says before anything could be done about Adams' findings, the city would have to do its own tests. "That's just our policy," Wells says. We don't rely on privately done tests."