Water Quality and Monitoring
Together with Water Sentinels of Taos, Amigos Bravos continues to gather water quality data from three Taos rivers – the Rio Fernando, the Rio Pueblo, and Rio Hondo – all of which showed evidence of E. coli contamination. The New Mexico Environmental Department approved our data and will be devoting resources to cleaning up the impaired waters. Sampling in these three river systems is ongoing. For more a brief description of each report and a link to the full reports, please visit our On-The-Ground Restoration page.
Please consider the following information a guide for developing a water quality monitoring program. For help in developing a water quality monitoring program in your community, please contact us.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) does not have capacity to monitor the state’s water on an adequate basis. They are limited to testing each segment approximately every 4-7 years. They will investigate specific sites if they receive sufficient evidence that there might be a problem.
NMED will accept third party community monitoring results and include them in their own surface water quality reporting if they are confident that the outside party has followed proper sampling protocols and that the laboratory used for analysis has proper quality assurance methods in place. NMED will thoroughly review and critique the quality control and quality assurance procedures used by the third party before it will officially accept the data. It can take a couple of years of back-and-forth -- NMED comment and third party tweaking -- before NMED is confident enough to incorporate outside results.
Typical Contaminants to Monitor
There are many constituents or analytes of concern that people monitor, as well as water conditions like temperature, PH, and TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). What follows are the most common.
E. coli – This very common bacteria is now the standard for testing for the presence of waste products. Much E.coli found in rivers and streams is from wildlife (birds and mammals), but a study on the Rio Grande in Albuquerque found a large percentage was from human waste (septic tanks) and from domestic animals (cats and dogs and horses and livestock).
Nutrients – So-called because plants use them (especially nitrate and ammonia). They result from runoff by dairy and crop production, as well as from leaking septic tanks. Most labs will test a suite of nutrients that also includes nitrite, phosphorus, and total nitrogen.
Metals – These come from industrial processes and can be deposited from discharges into water or through air deposition (from coal-fired power plants, for example, for mercury and some other metals, as well as radionuclides). Most labs test for a suite of metals, typically including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium, and zinc. Sometimes the suite is pre-defined for a set price and other metals can be added for a nominal charge; sometimes you can just pick what you want. All of the above metals are analyzed as dissolved metals, so the sample is filtered by the lab first to remove any suspended solids (many metals attach to small sediment particles in the water).
Mercury – This is another metal and very common because it often comes from coal-fired power plants and is deposited over long distances (China’s coal plants contribute to mercury deposition in the US, for example). It is analyzed separately from other metals because it is analyzed as total mercury (and therefore not filtered).
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) – This is a group of 209 related chlorine and benzene-based chemicals used extensively in industrial processes. Their use was banned in the US in 1979, but they are persistent and widespread in the environment.
Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) – This group includes everything from caffeine to ibuprofen to methadone to heart medications. Typically, a laboratory will have several groupings of PPCPs that it will analyze for. A subset of PPCPs is Endocrine Disrupting Compounds, such as BPA, which is used in some plastics. These chemicals mimic the human endocrine (hormone) system and are believed to have an impact on growth and development (other chemicals not within the PPCP lists can also impact the endocrine system).
Radionuclides – This includes both alpha- and beta-emitting elements (reported as "gross alpha" and "gross beta"). Common alpha emitters are isotopes of americium, plutonium, uranium, thorium, radium, radon, and polonium. The most common man-made beta emitters are strontium-90 and cesium-137, both of which may still appear as a result of past atomic/nuclear weapon testing. Other common beta emitters (there are a lot) are isotopes of tritium, cobalt, iodine, technetium.
To give you some idea of pricing, here is a table prepared in 2009/10 for a long-term water quality monitoring project Amigos Bravos carried out on the drains and ditches in the Albuquerque area:
Collecting the Sample
NMED (and the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey among many others) has a detailed protocol for collecting samples, analyzing them, and reporting them. The very short version is that there are two ways to get a sample.
The first is called a “grab sample” and consists of using a small collector on the end of a pole to dip into the water and then transfer it to either a larger container (before filling bottles) or directly into the bottle. The other method is called a “composite sample” and consists of entering into the water with a specialized container on a rod and slowly moving the collector up and down and also moving slowly back and forth across the water. This is done until enough water has been collected to fill all the sample bottles. Composite samples are the gold standard, but a grab sample will work. The important thing is to make sure that the collection equipment has been properly cleaned and stored prior to use again, and that the people doing the collecting and handling the equipment and bottles have also not transferred anything to the samples, such as sunscreen, deodorant/perfume, coffee, etc.
Filling the bottles correctly is also important. Bottles with preservative have to be filled to avoid spilling the preservative. Some analytes have to be filled to the rim (without spilling) in order to prevent air from being trapped in the bottle and causing volatilization of the analyte. Bottles also have to have their labels filled out (generally, date, time, location, analyte, name of collector). The lab supplying the bottles will supply the labels. Store all the bottles in the cooler with gel packs to keep the temperature down. This is most important for the E. coli samples. If they are too warm, the lab will not accept them for analysis.
Analyzing the Sample
It is possible to get simple test kits to analyze samples in the field for a limited range of analytes (things like nutrients, chlorine, some metals, etc.). The less expensive options resemble the kits used to test swimming pool chemicals. They are not very accurate, but can at least indicate if there might be a problem warranting more detailed analysis. There are also spectral analysis kits for use in the field that are much more accurate; they cost more, too.
For more precise results – with certified quality assurance on the results, that NMED will accept for its own use – you need to use a laboratory that meets EPA standards because each constituent has specific analytical methods whose results the EPA will accept. The costs for most typical constituents is not excessively high, depending on how many times you plan to sample.
There is only one reliable laboratory in Albuquerque that the average person can use:
Hall Environmental Analysis Laboratory
4901 Hawkins NE
The only laboratory in Santa Fe that appears able to handle typical water quality samples is a small one that tests primarily for home-related issues. While they test for some metals, it's limited and they don't appear to test for radionuclides (except maybe radon testing). However, they do test for E. coli & total coliforms. They might be useful in that regard for sampling done in northern New Mexico because the samples for the bacteriologicals need to be kept quite cold (in the mid-40s Fahrenheit at most) and delivered to the lab within 6 hours.
In-Depth Water Testing
2019 Galisteo, Ste G-2
There are also a number of out-of-state laboratories, although it is important to get complete information from them on what they test, whether they meet EPA standards for the constituents of concern, how they report their results, analytical costs plus costs for shipping, etc.
If you use a laboratory, you will first have to set up an account that they can bill to or arrange another method of payment. The lab will supply you with all the sample collection bottles you need. Where required, the bottles will also contain any preservatives needed to stabilize the samples until they get to the lab. If you use an in-state lab, it is probably more convenient to pick up the sample collection bottles and cooler from the lab. You can store it until you need it (ask them for any restrictions or conditions on doing this).
An out-of-state lab will send a cooler with bottles and gel packs to use when collecting the samples and sending them back (via UPS Overnight, using prepaid labels billed to your account). You will have to freeze the gel packs so they are ready for the day you collect samples so they maintain a low temperature in the cooler when you send it out that day. You will have to fill out a Chain-of-Custody form (provided by the lab) that asks for details on who collected the sample, when and where it was collected (a GPS coordinate would be excellent), what samples are included in the shipment, and how they should be treated. The lab can walk you through the form ahead of time. This makes using an out-of-state lab very convenient. Shipping costs for a standard cooler full of bottles and gelpacks runs about $50.
Interpreting the Results
The results for the various constituents will be reported in different units. The E. coli will likely be reported as CFU (colony forming units); the radionuclides as picocuries per liter (pCi/L), the metals and nutrients as micrograms per liter (mg/L or ppm - parts per million), and the PPCPs as nanograms per liter (ng/L or parts per trillion).
Standards exist for all the constituents, but they vary depending on intended use. Each reach or segment of a surface water of the State has one or more Designated Use classifications, such as irrigation, wildlife, cold water fishery, or human contact, among others. For the metals, the standards often depend on the condition of the water where the sample was found at the time the sample was taken because conditions like pH and temperature can affect the relative concentration of a particular metal in the water. That’s why, whenever a sample is taken for metals analysis, the water temperature and pH have to be measured as well.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Surface Water Quality Bureau has a list of current standards on its web site (http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/swqb/Standards/). These are periodically adjusted through a public process called the Triennial Review (every state has to review its standards every three years) and through smaller processes involving specific water bodies.