You Gonna Drink That?

A Recent Report Shows That The Rio Grande Is Dirtier Than We Thought

Laura Paskus
9 min read
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The main physical circumstances of the Rio Grande seem timeless and impersonal. They assume meaning only in terms of people who came to the river.

—Paul Horgan in his 1955 book, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History

Standing on the banks of the Rio Grande—even along its cluttered middle stretch here around Albuquerque—lends one a sense of peace, if not timelessness. The bosque ain't what it used to be, true. But it's still a treat to watch the gentle waters flow past tall cottonwoods, and this time of year, to hear sandhill cranes crooning over the urban buzz. Although the river begins as a clear stream at around 12,000 feet in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, by the time it slides into Albuquerque, it's carrying a pretty hefty sediment load. Winding through valleys and gouging out gorges will do that to a river: When those waters finally hit this middle stretch, they're flat and muddy.

And full of crap. Mainly full of bird droppings and dog poop, but carrying a fair amount of human waste, too.

So says a new report paid for by the New Mexico Environment Department, Bernalillo County and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District. The report, prepared by Austin-based Parsons Water and Infrastructure, Inc., is the result of two years of water sampling along 42 miles of the Rio Grande as well as in the arroyos and diversion channels that feed into it between Santa Ana and Isleta.

During flood events, as well as on average days, scientists tested the water for fecal coliform—bacterial microorganisms that live within the intestines of animals. Not surprisingly, they found that levels increased as they moved downstream. At Angostura Diversion, at the southern edge of the Santa Ana reservation in Sandoval County, the geometric mean was around 341 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 milliliters (mL), with the majority coming from canines, followed by livestock and birds.

Moving downstream, levels increased to 4,610 cfu per 100 mL at the I-25 bridge in Albuquerque. The main source was birds, followed closely by humans and then canines. And the biggest contributor of fecal coliform to the river, at least during storm events, is the North Diversion Channel, which had a mean of 100,000 cfu per 100 mL at runoff conditions. Other drainages with high concentrations included the Hahn, Embudo and North Domingo Baca arroyos. Human waste concentrations were highest below Rio Rancho Utilities 2 and 3, and below the Rio Bravo Bridge.

These levels exceed both state and tribal standards. State standards for this stretch of the river take into account that people really do swim, boat and fish in the middle Rio Grande; tribal standards are even more stringent, and require that the river's waters meet “ceremonial” standards.

Why is this happening? The big answer is that “we've paved over our watershed,” according to Steve Glass, chairman of the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation Commission at a recent presentation before the North Valley Coalition. On an average day, levels are about 20 to 30 times what they should be. On storm event days, when water runs through the streets and diversion channels, flushing unchecked into the river, the levels are off the charts.

“People need to have more awareness of what's happening to the river,” said Lucy Sanchez with the river advocacy group Amigos Bravos. “What's in the Rio Grande feeds into the acequias and then people irrigate with it.” She works with the local acequia associations, as well as with water quality groups, trying to build awareness of the state of the river. “Some families have been here in the South Valley (for centuries), and they have no clue about the contamination in there.”

Up Shit Creek

Along with fecal coliform, the report also notes that E. coli—bacteria that's usually harmless, but which can cause severe illness or death if ingested—was found. It's easy to blame the problem on the birds—after all, avian E. coli sources account for 33 percent of the total. Then there are the area's 137,000 dogs, which contribute to about 22 percent of the total. (The city is trying to combat the problem by running “Scoop the Poop” commercials on television.)

But, realistically, the waste that really shouldn't be in the river is ours, which accounts for about 16 percent of the total. (The next highest contributors include rodents: 10.8 percent; bovines: 7.2 percent; and horses: 4.3 percent.)

The report itself acknowledges that there's not much to be done about the bird waste and that it will be hard to change the behavior of pet owners. In fact, “human contributions are most easily reduced.” That's done, the authors suggest, by reducing sewer system overflows and leaks, enforcing wastewater permits, and identifying and repairing failing septic systems.

Although the report doesn't lay out specific sources for the contamination, it does offer a few nonspecific suggestions, including “inadequately treated wastewater discharges and improperly disposed diapers.” Typical sources of E. coli nationwide, according to the report's authors, include “broken underground sewer pipes that leak into the storm water collection system and sewer system overflows.”

At the very end of the report's results section, the authors point out that human fecal matter sources appear to be highest in the vicinities of the two wastewater treatment facilities on the river in Rio Rancho and the Southside Water Reclamation Plant, indicating that these permitted facilities are contributing more waste to the river than leaking septic tanks and malfunctioning sewer pipes.

(By the way, the city released a similar report in 2000. Its basic conclusion was that since wastewater treatment plants are regulated by the state and federal governments, the waste must be coming from “non-point” sources such as “seepage and septage,” runoff and illegal dumping.)

The Southside plant, the state's largest, treats about 55 million gallons of mixed residential and industrial water as well as sewage every day. Unfortunately, due to “homeland security” concerns, no one in Rio Rancho was able to say how much waste their facilities process each day. But some readers might remember how in 2000 there was a “mechanical malfunction” at one of the plants. While the city says 6,400 gallons of treated effluent ran into the river, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated the spill at 1 million gallons and slapped the city with a $27,500 fine.

One Big Toilet?

It's one thing when contaminants in the river have unfamiliar names: Radioactive cesium-137 and the rocket fuel perchlorate, for instance, drain into the river from Los Alamos. Or sometimes it's easy for regular people to ignore the presence of things like chlorine and ammonia, selenium and mercury. But somehow the whole fecal coliform issue has a certain gross-out factor that seems more tangible to your average person. Poop seems more clear-cut, and, well, everyone can relate to it and visualize it.

Maybe that's a good thing. Perhaps people will finally start taking this stretch of the river—and its protection—seriously. “Along the whole middle Rio Grande, whether the issue is water quality or quantity, bosque or habitat restoration issues, there is a way that people can live beside it, along it and not feel connected to it that is a bit mysterious to me,” said John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based environmental group, Forest Guardians. “In a way, it's like there isn't any one dramatic source that is threatening the river—it's the classic death of a thousand cuts,” he says. “It's diffuse, largely invisible and yet—hey!—it's coming to your tap.”

Indeed, even if you're not a river rat and you've never enjoyed a stroll through the bosque, consider this: In about two and a half years, we're all going to be drinking water from the Rio Grande. Once the city completes its San Juan Chama Drinking Water Project, the city will be mixing river water with groundwater to serve it up as drinking water. That diversion, by the way, is about six miles downstream of Rio Rancho's wastewater utility and a stone's throw downstream from the North Valley Diversion Channel.

Now that the study is done, state regulators will have the opportunity to decide whether to revise the fecal coliform standards—so that the river is not out of compliance with their standards—or figure out a way to control releases and clean up the river. Locally, the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District is working on a Watershed Restoration Action Strategy that will come up with ways to clean the watershed. The first and foremost goal of the conservation district is to educate people about the importance of the watershed. The health of the watershed, said Glass, affects everything: human health, the quality of the water in the river and the ground, the abundance of wildlife and recreational opportunities. “People who live in a paved watershed don't realize that,” he said. “But the fundamental issue is not that complicated: The pollutants we dump are getting into our river.”

If you're interested in getting a CD of the fecal coliform report, which, despite its 331 pages of tables, charts and descriptions of water sampling techniques, isn't as cumbersome to navigate as one might think (as an added bonus, it includes an entire appendix of “miscellaneous scat photos”), contact the state's Surface Water Quality Bureau at (505) 827-0187 or go to

Alibi Newscity Reading Comprehension Quiz

Whoever correctly answers the following three multiple choice questions — and is the first to e-mail them to along with their name and contact information — will win a copy of two fabulous books: Floyd Abrams’ Speak Freely: Trials of the First Amendment and Edward Said’s From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map: Essays.

What’s the definition of fecal coliform?
A. Animal excrement
B. Bacterial microorganisms that live within the intestines of animals
C. A brand of shampoo for dogs
D. A type of form-fitting hunter’s cap

What’s the biggest source of fecal coliform in the stretch of Rio Grande that flows through Albuquerque?
A. people
B. dogs
C. birds
D. shellfish

One of the most intriguing aspects of the fecal coliform report discussed above is that it includes an appendix of “miscellaneous scat photos.” What’s the definition of scat?
A. animal excrement
B. a style of jazz-singing involving the improvisation of meaningless syllables
C. all of the above
D. none of the above

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