Water quality: Right as rain

By Gary Mitchell

One good thing about having to drill so deeply for water in this region is that it helps ensure its purity, water experts say.
The primary water source for this area is the Ogallala Aquifer, which is accessed by drilling 300 to 400 feet, depending on location.
“Because of that, you don’t have the problem with chemicals so much,” said Robin Casale, regional water quality director for American Water Works, parent company for Clovis water supplier New Mexico-American Water Co.
“As the water percolates through the soil that far to get to the ground-water source, Mother Nature filters out a lot of the contaminant. Very little treatment is needed because of Mother Nature’s natural filtering action. All we do is disinfect the water. We just get rid of the dirt and bacteria.”
Kathy Wright, vice president and manager of New Mexico-American Water Co. said she is confident of the quality of water delivered to Clovis residents.
“All water produced and delivered by New Mexico-American Water Co. meets or exceeds standards for public drinking water established by the State Environment Department and the Environmental Protection Agency,” she stated in the company’s 2001 annual water quality report. “Such standards are stricter than the quality standards set for any other thing we eat or drink. Once you receive the water from us, no additional treatment is necessary.”
However, county residents who use domestic wells should take extra precautions, just in case, said Dennis McQuillan, New Mexico Environment Department geologist.
“There are some problems out there,” he said. “The big issue is domestic wells because they’re not monitored. Anybody who has a private domestic well can get their water tested. The department in the past has periodically hosted water fairs in Curry and Roosevelt counties where we set up a portable laboratory so we can test for pollutants. It gives people an idea of what is in their water, and it’s a good form of surveillance for us.”
McQuillan identified three major pollutants most likely to contaminate the aquifer beneath Curry County: diesel fuel, nitrates and perchlorate.
“There is a huge diesel contamination by the railroad in Clovis, which has a long history of spillage and overfueling,” he said. “The pollution is not due to any one, catastrophic spill, but from decades of spilloff.”
During the 1970s, the Santa Fe Railway began taking measures to control fuel spills, McQuillan said.
“They began putting collection pans at the refueling facilities and automatic shutoff valves on their dispensers,” he said. “Cleanup of the aquifer began in the mid-to-late 1970s. The Clovis rail yard did the very first ground-water cleanup in New Mexico and began recovering the diesel that was floating on the water table. To recover the diesel, they mostly use low-volume skimmer pipes that basically take a gulp of diesel and send it to the surface.”
The railroad skimmed more than 138,775 gallons of diesel from the water table in 2001, McQuillan said, and a total of 1.3 million gallons in the past three decades.
“The remaining diesel doesn’t affect the drinking water because the diesel is localized right around the rail yard,” he said. However, cleanup at Santa Fe Lake has been completed.
The second area of concern is nitrates.
“I know there are dairies out there that have impacted the ground water with nitrates because of waste from cows,” McQuillan said.
“These wells are right around the dairy, and are not going to affect anybody’s drinking water unless their domestic wells are located on the dairy lands.”
For those on the public water supply, the average level of nitrates in the water supply is 1.86 parts per million. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) allowed by governmental regulations is 10 parts per million.
“The nitrate level is between 1 and 2 parts per million, and that’s well below the regulated levels,” Casale said. “Nitrates are there in detectable amounts, but it’s not a problem.”
The third area of concern for McQuillan is perchlorates, which are inorganic compounds often used in rocket or jet fuel, fireworks and in fertilizer.
“There were two wells that had hits of perchlorate in the Clovis drinking supply,” he said. “Perchlorate was also found in a Melrose supply well that was shut down. Since Curry County is in such a big agriculture area, it is most likely caused from fertilizer. However, munitions from Cannon Air Force Base could also have contributed to the contamination, so the source is not really clear.”
A contaminant in some places that causes concern for water drinkers is arsenic levels, but that shouldn’t concern Clovis-area residents, Casale said.
The water quality report states that the average arsenic level in the Clovis public water supply is 5 parts per billion, and the maximum contaminant level (MCL) allowed is 50.
“Although arsenic can be a problem, it’s not a problem for people in Clovis,” Casale said.
Serious health problems can develop from polluted water.
“Diesel is obviously dangerous to ingest and is a known human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent,” McQuillan said. “With nitrates, the primary concern is that it causes Blue Baby Syndrome, a condition where nitrogen attaches to the blood instead of oxygen. It affects children who are less than 6 months to 1 year old in age. It’s a rare disease, but when it does happen, it can be very serious or even fatal. There are also concerns that lifetime exposure to nitrate might increase the risk of certain types of cancers. And perchlorate, although very controversial, is considered to be toxic to the thyroid gland.”
Such health risks are highly unlikely for people in this region, McQuillan said.
“The first thing people should know is that anybody on a public water supply should feel pretty well protected because their water supply is closely monitored,” he said. “Every year, water systems are required to give confidence reports on the tests that have been conducted by the water companies.”
Wright agreed.
“We do bacti tests weekly,” she said. “We set up a schedule for testing, and we do reports annually. We start with a natural fresh water source. We regularly sample and analyze water before it enters our system. We conduct quality control checks as water leaves our plant. Finally, we routinely check water quality at several locations around our system to make sure everything is safe until the water arrives at your home. Water quality is the most important part of our job.”
New Mexico-American Water Co. maintains and operates a state-certified, water quality laboratory.
“Our laboratory is the only state-certified water lab for more than 100 miles,” she said. “In addition to making sure Clovis-area water is safe and reliable, we test water for local farms and ranches, government agencies and even other water systems. We want to make sure the water is safe for everyone in our area.”