Safe to drink?
Government needs to give assessment on water quality

For years now, all Albuquerque officials have talked about, when it comes to water, is how much of it we have. We've always presumed the water was safe to drink and relatively cheap to get.

But that's all changing now, and in dramatic and even frightening ways.

We're growing so fast, and our climate is becoming so dry, that population expansion is causing some developers on the West Side to seriously consider providing desalinated water from deep, brackish aquifers to their customers, at perhaps as much as three times the cost of what the rest of the city pays.

But that's not the scary part. Nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory is beginning to get into our drinking water. Plutonium was found last year, in very small but potentially deadly amounts in Santa Fe's drinking water near the Buckman well field. For people in Santa Fe and downstream in Albuquerque who plan to start drinking river water next year, that's a catastrophe in the making.

It really hasn't dawned on the popular media yet that the whole Los Alamos lab complex should be designated a gigantic Superfund site and probably will be in the future.

And it's not a great cause for hope, either, to read about radioactive dust samples being found in Los Alamos homes and laboratory job sites.

Water quality will become the key political issue in Albuquerque for years to come.

Twelve years ago, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a report that said, in part, Bernalillo County had "over 150 documented ground-water contamination events" that have polluted "vast amounts of ground water, its quality degraded to an extent that it affects its usefulness as drinking water." More ominous than even the phrase "vast amounts" is the assertion that more than "20 of these cases" may reach the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund National Priorities List.

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County area currently has three sites on the list. That was a dozen years ago. Is there a major water quality health menace lurking in our aquifer?

The Toxic Substances Registry says "as much as 30 square miles of land area" here may overlie ground water supplies polluted from "septic tanks, underground storage tanks, landfills, industrial facilities and releases of hazardous materials."

If you're thinking we can go deep under the compromised fresh water aquifer to brackish water and desalinate our way out of ground water pollution, think again. Desalinization takes tremendous amounts of power, to be supplied at the moment by greenhouse-gas-producing power plants, the chief culprits in global warming.

We need the state and federal governments to give us a realistic and ongoing assessment of our ground water quality. That may be momentarily bad for business, but it's essential for our long-term health.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
July 20, 2007