Water fair set for Thursday for area residents using wells


Who's up for a little citizen science?

Who's up for a little citizen science?

Next week, Valencia County residents who rely on wells for drinking water will have the opportunity to not only learn the quality of that water, but also contribute to filling in holes in water quality data in the region.

The New Mexico Environment Department is hosting a free "water fair" at the Holiday Inn Express on Camino del Llano in Belen from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21.

The results of the testing will obviously inform residents about the quality of their own water. It will also provide data for some necessary water modeling for a new power plant on Belen's West Mesa.

When PNM proposed a new natural gas power plant, one of the biggest concerns was how would the plant's commercial well impact the water level of surrounding residential wells?

After completing water modeling on the potential draw down over the anticipated life of the La Luz energy station, experts say the aquifer can be expected to drop 15 inches over the 40 years the plant will be most likely in operation.

Since the project was so contentious, PNM asked residents in the vicinity of the plant to form a citizens' advisory committee to keep the lines of communication open between the company and locals.

"We had about 150 registered wells the Office of the State Engineer was able to use to develop course grained and finer grained water models as far as transmissibility of water through the aquifer — how much draw down could be anticipated?" said Doug Campbell, PNM's manager of environmental planning and permitting.

But then a "smart individual" on the advisory committee asked Campbell about the future water quality of people's wells.

"One of the interesting things about this area, and it is a very site specific sort of situation geologically, is there is an underground fault line that travels up the West Mesa," Campbell said.

When you go west and start drawing water from a similar level as the wells just above Belen, about 400 feet down, Campbell said you start drawing water from the Rio Puerco aquifer. The water from that aquifer, compared to the Rio Grande aquifer, is much cloudier, Campbell said, with higher "total dissolved solids."

"That's why you really don't see many wells on the other side of the fault line," he said. "There is some indication that the closer you move to the fault line, the water gets harder. But we really don't have the data to understand that yet."

And that's where local "citizen scientists" come in.

"It's kind of like crowd sourcing," Campbell said with a laugh. "When a well draws water, it draws from all directions. So what is the long term effect on the water quality in the wells west of the plant, between the fault line and the plant? We don't know how much water is passing through that fault line."

In well-established pollution particle models, the known particles and "draw rate" are entered and the models can show where the pollution will move.

"This is the same kind of problem, but we don't have data on the water hardness in the area," Campbell said. "We have 150 wells with the known levels of where they hit water and draw from, so we have enough data on how fast the water is moving through the aquifer on the Rio Grande side. We don't have enough data on the quality."

To fill in those data gaps, Campbell said PNM decided to partner with NMED to host a water fair in Belen. The testing is open to any residents on a well, but PNM will be asking those with wells in the vicinity of the La Luz plant to authorize NMED to release the well's exact location to the company.

"When folks have water fairs, NMED typically doesn't give specific well information," Campbell said. "For our model, the more specific the information the better the model will work."

Everyone bringing a water sample to the fair will be asked if they will allow NMED to release the site-specific information to PNM.

"One component of this is it will support a permitting application (for our well)," Campbell said. "It will also let us adequately and honestly evaluate the impact on the community."

Even with the focus on the La Luz site and water quality of the West Mesa wells, PNM Resource Communications Consultant Susan Sponar said the water fair was a good opportunity for anyone to have the quality of their water tested.

"It's an opportunity they might not have otherwise," Sponar said.

To collect the water sample, use a clean glass or plastic container, at least a quart. Do not use containers that have a strong odor, such as citrus or pickle jars.

Collect the sample before it goes through any water treatment systems, such as reverse osmosis, a water softener or carbon filter.

Let the water run for a few minutes before collecting the sample. Cover the container with a clean lid. Collect the sample as close to the time of testing as possible.

If available, provide well depth, depth to water, well casing material and distance from well to the nearest septic tank/leach field system.

Limited analysis will be performed the same day, and you can either pick up results or have them mailed to you.

Drinking water will be tested for electrical conductivity, nitrate, iron, pH, fluoride and sulfate.

For further information, contact the NMED Ground Water Quality Bureau at 222-9574.

-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.