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Little Room For Error At Albuquerque’s Wastewater Plant

Rita Daniels

Businesses, military bases and city utilities have dozens of permits to release pollution into the Rio Grande watershed. Albuquerque’s wastewater treatment plant is one of the biggest sources of discharges into the river.

The plant has had trouble with regulators and neighboring communities in the past, but they’re making some headway. 

On a recent sunny day in Albuquerque’s South Valley, water utility workers bent over a grate taking readings of the city’s treated wastewater as it rushes from the Southside Water Reclamation Plant into the Rio Grande.

This is the point where at any given day, 50 million gallons of water flow back into the river after being flushed down the toilets and washed down the drains of Albuquerque’s homes and businesses.

The measurements are well within the legal range, and Jeff Romanowski, the plant’s chief engineer, said that’s how things usually are here. But the news isn’t always good.

"We’ve had some problems," Romanowski said. "We had some issues, and that’s one reason we wanted to do all this rehab because we had structural problems with the equipment."

Credit Ed Williams

The utility is spending $250 million on upgrades to fix the outdated equipment that has led, along with other issues, to violations of the Clean Water Act.

"No matter how good an operator you are," Romanowski explained, "if you don’t have equipment that can support the process you’re going to have problems."

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued the water utility three formal orders to fix problems at the plant since 2010. At one point it was listed on the agency’s national watch list of troubled facilities.

James Abeita is an Isleta Pueblo farmer who irrigates his crops with river water not far downstream from the treatment plant. Several decades ago tribal authorities there began raising concerns about strange smells and foam drifting down the river.

Credit Rita Daniels
Dark, clear water flows from the Southside Water Reclamation Plant into the Rio Grande.

After legal battles with the city that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the tribe imposed their own strict water quality standards on the plant. Things have gotten much better at the plant since then, but Abeita says Isleta has little patience for any new violations.

"Albuquerque is accountable," he said. "Albuquerque has got to step up and adhere to the water quality standards we’ve got."

But adhering to those standards is not always easy, said water utility operations chief John Stomp.

"If our permit isn’t the strictest permit in the Southwestern United States, it’s definitely one of the most strict I’ve seen," he said.

Stomp said the overall performance of the plant is very good, and that the 18 EPA violations they got over the past year are based on inaccurate records except for some occasional E. Coli violations. (It’s worth mentioning here that it was high levels of E. Coli in the river that led the EPA to classify a downstream stretch as unsafe for recreation and some wildlife).

Still, Stomp pointed out, the wastewater coming out of the treatment plant is cleaner than the river it’s flowing into.

Credit Ed Williams
River Source monitoring the Rio Grande with a group of students.

Rich Schrader monitors the Rio Grande below the Albuquerque plant for the environmental nonprofit River Source. His tests have turned up worrisome results for fecal bacteria and phosphorous that he says could be coming from the city’s wastewater.

Schrader says there are many other, and probably more serious, kinds of pollution flowing into the river even when the plant is working perfectly.

"Estrogen, hormone mimickers, Viagra. All these elements are emerging contaminants that they do not take out at the water treatment plant," Schrader said. "That water can go into people’s irrigation ditches and get into their farm fields, and potentially get taken up by the food."

But that’s hard to gauge. Water pollution is a murky subject, you can’t always see it. There are so many questions that we can’t answer yet, and that’s partly because there’s not much data out there. The government measures water contamination in the Rio Grande every 8 years.

Check out our map of all current EPA violators in New Mexico to see other sources of pollution. 

Funding for KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project comes from the McCune Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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