José Varela López was standing in the Santa Fe River on June 19 as he repaired an adjoining fence on his property in La Cieneguilla, south of the city. Three days later, June 22, his 30-head herd of cows and calves drank from the river.
He and neighbor Ed Sceery, who also runs cattle and a few horses on his ranch, both said the water in the river seemed gray in color during those days.
They thought nothing of it until learning Tuesday of a problem at the city’s wastewater treatment plant between June 19 and 22. The city said an “upset” at the plant released effluent unsafe for use in watering public spaces, such as the city’s golf course and the greens at the private Santa Fe County Club. That discharge contained “various coliform bacteria that include E. coli,” city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon told The New Mexican on Monday.
López and Sceery, like a lot of their roughly 40 neighbors who rely on the Santa Fe River for ranching and farming, grew concerned that maybe some of the effluent was released in to the river and made its way down to their properties for a day or two, despite city officials’ assertions that didn’t happen.
“What irks me is that we didn’t know about it,” said López, who said his family has worked land around the river since the late 1690s, when the Spanish colonized the region. “I should have gotten my cattle off the river. I don’t want my cattle drinking that water.”
A number of residents along the La Cieneguilla portion of the river joined together to send an email of concern to the five Santa Fe County commissioners this week, saying they worry about the environmental impact to wildlife and feel sure that “something happened” to pollute the river.
But Chacon said that’s not the case. She said the water treatment plant malfunction had been corrected, and all “treated water leaving the plant is within standards.”
She said other water sources, such as tributaries and springs, can contribute to the quality of the water downstream and dilute the quality or “worsen it due to coliform bacteria from cattle, elk and other mammals.”
She said the only way farmers and ranchers will know how much bacteria is in the water on their lands is to test it themselves at the point of diversion.
The issue plays up the angst some La Cieneguilla residents feel about possible threats to their water sources. With County Commissioner Rudy Garcia in tow, López and Sceery took a tour of the river in the area Wednesday and pointed out a number of challenges including invasive beavers building dams and knocking down trees, which in turn fall into the waterway and die. There also are concerns about roadways that lack repairs or need to be raised to offset the potential for flooding, which can in turn kill trees and plants.
A perceived lack of county response when it comes to cleaning up nearby arroyos and streams is another complaint.
Their water is their livelihood, they said. A sign hanging out front of Sceery’s house may sum it up best: Mi Casa Es Su Casa, Pero Mi Agua Es Mi Agua.
“My house is your house, but my water is my water.”
Garcia said the city and county need to do a better job of communicating about such problems and coordinating responses to them. Regarding the possibility that untreated city wastewater is getting into the river, he said: “We have to look at that, have to look at how to work with the city and figure out how to move forward. I’m not sure whether we have to get the state Environment Department involved.”
City Manager Erik Litzenberg said in an email Wednesday: “A full after-action review of this incident is forthcoming.”
That may not be enough to satisfy the ranchers along the river. López and Sceery said they hope in the future that the city does a better job of telling the public, including those depending on the river for agricultural purposes, if there’s a problem at the treatment plant.
“If they have a major catastrophe at that plant, all residents on the river should be given notice first,” Sceery said. “Then they can call the damn golf courses.”
Sceery also said the wastewater treatment plant should have an emergency plan in place in case things go wrong. That plan should be made public, he said.
City of Santa Fe Public Utilities Director Shannon Jones said the city does have such a plan in place.
“The plan is we shut it down,” he said in an email.