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Pressing water concerns discussed at conference

May 25, 2016 - By Karen Wentworth

Nearly 140 participants gathered at The University of New Mexico Student Union Building recently to discuss the various water problems facing the state of New Mexico. The conference was sponsored by UNM’s Center for Water and the Environment in the School of Engineering.

Concerns ranged from quantity – in a presentation from UNM Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences David Gutzler, who told the gathering that the long-term water deficit facing the southwest is still in place to representatives from the pueblos of Sandia and Isleta who spoke of changing conditions in the flow of the Rio Grande and resulting impact on the wooded bosque areas lining the banks of the river.

In a panel on surface water quality, Chief Scientist of the New Mexico Environment Department Dennis McQuillan said that the Colorado Gold King Mine spill put thousands of pounds of heavy metals into the San Juan river, but that there have been no wildlife or fish die offs documented as a result of the spill. He also said he was confident that drinking water had not been contaminated.

McQuillan said he was concerned about misleading information from the federal Environmental Protection Agency about dissolved lead contamination.

“EPA says the river has returned to pre-events standards, but storm water events re-suspends some of the heavy metals and causes peaking in the samples,” he said.
He is also very concerned that EPA is proposing a recreational screening level of lead far in excess of other EPA established levels in other parts of the United States.

McQuillan said he still hopes that the federal government will fund an independent holistic monitoring program for the entire affected area.

Other panels discussed management of reservoirs around the state as experts spoke about the competing needs among water managers, water users and wildlife.

“This conference brought people from a wide variety of state, federal and private agencies together to discuss New Mexico’s water problems, which helps develop creative and collaborative solutions,” said Kerry Howe, director of the Center for Water and the Environment and professor of civil engineering.

Howe said they hope to make the conference an annual event.