Nestled up the hillsides past the Audubon Center and beyond the reaches of the Dale Ball Trails is a stretch of forest that’s been mostly closed to human traffic since 1932. This infrequently accessed 17,200-acre piece of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains feeds the Santa Fe River and a series of two reservoirs that are a major source of water for the city of Santa Fe.
The results, from a water quality manager’s perspective, are nice. “Santa Fe’s water supply is actually really clean,” says Alex Puglisi, environmental compliance specialist with the city’s Public Utilities Department.
The drinking water for more than 80,000 city residents is drawn from a few main sources: the Santa Fe Watershed, groundwater wells and the San Juan-Chama diversion from the Rio Grande. Each has its own set of issues, but the concerns, on the whole, are manageable, Puglisi says, and he should know: It’s his job to make sure the water meets federal standards. With repairs to the reservoirs fed by the Santa Fe River Watershed bringing that source back online, the last year has seen the Canyon Road Water Treatment Plant supply an increasing amount of the city’s water, though it’s one of several options.
The Santa Fe River runs downhill into a series of two reservoirs, McClure and Nichols, which are nearing the end of a multiyear process to rebuild historic dam infrastructure. Nichols was totally drained and has since been refilled. Earlier this year, after storms in May, it was at 98 percent capacity, water just below the spillway. Now it’s 60 percent full. McClure, which is almost five times the size of Nichols, holding 1.02 billion gallons to Nichols’ 218 million, has been totally drained for repairs. How quickly it will refill is a question mark, Puglisi says, but the hope is that with the predicted high precipitation of an El Niño winter coming, they’ve timed it just right.
When he talks about what he is concerned about with that source, it’s not what you might expect. The municipal watershed at the headwaters of the Rio Grande Watershed, having been closed to the public for more than 80 years and surrounded by wilderness and land held by the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society, is threatened by very little in the way of contamination, according to Puglisi.
“There’s no mining, so that protects us from things like Gold King,” he says.
The big thing the city is watching for, with no mines and no human settlements upriver, is wildfire. Before it was closed to the public, the area was logged, and the resulting regrowth came in thick groves of trees, now all about 70 years old. Were a forest like that to burn, it would be the kind of out-of-control, overly hot blaze that’s become known for blasting past fire breaks to burn homes and, at times, kill firefighters. The damage to the water quality would be severe.
To avoid that scenario, the Forest Service has hand-thinned the ponderosas on 5,500 acres of hillsides surrounding the reservoirs. That work breeds its own questions, like what effect chemicals and ash from cutting, piling and burning trees might have on the reservoir’s water. They’re monitoring for that, as well as the amount of total organic carbon coming out of the watershed.
In heavy rains, sediment carried down eroding arroyos may increase turbidity to levels that exceed what drinking water standards allow, and there’s some question as to how thinner trees might affect that.
Below Nichols, a pipe carries water from the reservoir to the water treatment plant, where drinking water is treated, per federal requirements, with fluoride, chlorine and sodium carbonate to make it slightly more alkaline to prevent corrosion in copper and lead pipes. The city just completed a test of copper and lead required every three years; results are pending.
In addition to surface water from Santa Fe River, processed through the Canyon Road Water Treatment Plant, the city gets Rio Grande surface water (through the San Juan-Chama project) that’s treated at the Buckman Direct Diversion facility and Tesuque Formation aquifer groundwater accessed through seven wells within city limits and 13 wells in the Buckman well field northwest of town.
The city’s tests of its wells and of the river water from both sources show levels of contaminants that are well below the toughest goals set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Naturally occurring levels of arsenic, fluoride and radioactive contaminants all need monitoring, Puglisi says.
The 2014 water quality test shows most of the city’s water sources coming in below the maximum contaminant level goal, an unenforceable target that takes into account sensitive populations like infants, elderly and those with compromised immune systems, and the maximum contaminant level, the enforceable standard for public water systems.
Arsenic, likely from volcanic geology in the area, appears in levels that can be treated by mixing higher arsenic wells with water from other wells. Radioactive contaminants also appear in the water coming from the Rio Grande through the Buckman transfer and in the city well field. The EPA has stated a goal of providing water with no traces of gross alpha, gross beta, radium or uranium but tolerates low levels of each in an effort to set standards that cities can afford to meet, and Santa Fe’s water comes in well below those marks.
The radioactive contamination found in water from wells within the city limits, wells in the Buckman Road area line and the Buckman Diversion from the Rio Grande—in varying amounts, they’re all below the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA—comes from naturally occurring uranium ores.
But Nuclear Watch New Mexico says that may not always be the case. Some of the more soluble, faster-moving contaminants, chromium and high explosives among them, have already been found in the aquifer that serves Santa Fe, Los Alamos and portions of Española, and they arrived far faster than Los Alamos big-wigs said they expected. And a plan currently working its way through the New Mexico Environment Department calls for capping and covering 200,000 cubic yards of radioactive and hazardous waste situated above the aquifer, saying that it would take thousands of years for contaminants to migrate. They’ve been found in springs along the Rio Grande after just 60 years. They’ve also been found 200 feet deep.
“As late as 1996, the head of Los Alamos’s groundwater protection plan was publicly saying that groundwater contamination was impossible from the laboratory because the overlying volcanic tuff was, and the word that he used, was impermeable, and the Pajarito Plateau is without exaggeration one of the most geologically complex places in the world, and it’s highly fractured,” says Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and board president for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “For the head of Los Alamos’s groundwater contamination plan to say groundwater contamination is impossible is completely untruthful.”
Regional monitoring wells have also shown contamination.
“It may be below the [maximum contaminant level], but still, they’re there, and so our feeling is that if this stuff hits the aquifer, then it’s kind of too late,” says Scott Kovac, also with Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “We’ve got to remove the source so it doesn’t keep seeping that way.”
Though the Buckman wells are 1,000 feet deep, they may be some of the first places contaminants, if they move, are found.
Often, when the city tells people something like there’s no evidence that Los Alamos is the source of the radium and uranium found in trace amounts in the water, not even they seem to believe it, Puglisi says. So when there are storms in Los Alamos, they shut off intakes at the Buckman Diversion, which draws from the Rio Grande near Los Alamos, just to preserve Santa Feans’ peace of mind.
“Not that we’re saying there’s something coming down, but there was such a concern when Buckman was built,” Puglisi says.
With the rain increasing sediment, the water quality drops anyway.
For the Santa Fe River, the biggest problem is us. By the time the river passes under Guadalupe Street, it’s seen notable increases in the level of contaminants from human and animal wastes and refuse.
The city is in the third phase of brownfield tests on the water that drains into the river, and it has found some surprises along the way, including chemical remnants likely from dry cleaners.
“We’re trying to get a bit of a definition of what we’re looking at and how extensive it may be,” Puglisi says. “As we’ve gone through every phase, we’ve found more questions to answer.”
The $120,000 in brownfield assessment work is being done through the New Mexico Environment Department and an EPA contractor. The contaminants they’re now finding are not thought to be a threat to any of the wells yet, he says, but they’ll continue tracking their location.
The city has been scaling down its use of wells, once run almost to capacity all the time, and examining how their use affects the level of contaminants coming from them. They’ve noticed some variations so far in the levels of contaminants coming from wells where pumps have just been turned on or wells where they’ve been pumping water for a while, but they aren’t announcing conclusions from that research yet. Wells are sampled quarterly, each quarter testing for different constituents, but always for tritium. If they’re going to see something coming down valley from Los Alamos, tritium would likely be the first marker of that, Puglisi says.
Rotating some wells out of use is a luxury afforded by decreased water consumption in a city that has shed millions of gallons from its average peak days. When the demand was near 18 million gallons a day, the wells had to run all the time, at almost peak capacity. The Buckman Diversion was built in part to slow the draw on those wells. With high use now just 14 million gallons a day, they have the option to turn elsewhere, Puglisi says: “Conservation has almost expanded the portfolio of options.”