SANTA CRUZ, N.M. (AP) — Eloy Jacquez lives in the house his parents built on Los Lujans Road in 1948. There was no water in Santa Cruz then. The family waited several more years before the first well was drilled just up the street, next to land used as an informal waste dump. Old cars were left to rust. Large shards of plastic and clothing are still embedded in the uneven dirt road. The tiny community in northern Santa Fe County wouldn’t learn until decades later that the water it had tapped 180 feet below ground was pulled from bedrock rich with uranium.
Jacquez, 67, said he grew up drinking from the tap and raised his eight children here, who did, too. They didn’t know about the risks.
The state began sending letters to Santa Cruz in 2002, informing its 450 residents that there was a slew of dangerous contaminants in the drinking water at levels that exceeded state and federal limits. Among the pollutants was the naturally occurring uranium, a radioactive metal that can cause cancer and kidney failure.
Since then, uranium has been reported consistently in Santa Cruz’s water supply, sometimes at more than double the legal limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and adopted by the state. Alpha emitters — measures of radioactive decay from uranium and radium — have been recorded at nearly three times the legal limit.
Santa Cruz has had more drinking-water violations than there are people in the community. Between 2004 and 2016, the New Mexico Environment Department issued notices of 548 violations, according to state records analyzed by The New Mexican. Most of the problems were documented after 2010.
“We’ve been struggling with water for a long, long time,” Jacquez said. “Without water, you don’t function around here.”
Santa Cruz’s drinking water has one of the highest concentrations of uranium in the nation, records show. But it’s not the only water system in the state struggling with contamination. According to a new report by a nonprofit advocacy group, more than 80 percent of New Mexicans have radioactive metals and toxic chemicals in their water at levels that may pose health risks, and tens of thousands of state residents — including many in Santa Fe County — rely on water with contaminants at levels that exceed state and federal standards.
Hundreds of these water systems, like the one in Santa Cruz, are small, rural, poorly funded operations serving low-income people. Bill Conner, president of the New Mexico Rural Water Association, said the systems can’t afford to upgrade aging infrastructure and improve water quality on their own, and it can take years for them to get grants, loans or capital outlay funding from the state Legislature.
Water infrastructure needs across the state are estimated to exceed $1 billion, he said.
Santa Cruz, where the average personal income is less than $9,500 annually and the poverty rate is 57 percent, was finally awarded state funding in 2014, after five years of requesting the aid. A new water system is well underway and expected to begin supplying about 30 households with clean water within a month, but $1 million is still needed to get the rest of the community connected.
Meanwhile, as the state Environment Department issues warnings to water systems in violation of water standards, many communities, like Santa Cruz, are left with unsafe drinking water for long periods of time.
State data show that more than 1,100 water systems in New Mexico, including those serving individual schools and businesses, were issued violation notices from the state between 2004 and 2016, averaging 50 per system — though many had more than 200 in that period.
Environment Department spokeswoman Allison Majure did not answer questions from The New Mexican about how the state enforces its drinking water regulations after systems have been notified about violations. Records show the department has never levied fines against the Santa Cruz Water Association.
However, the department has issued fines and taken action against other water systems and companies in the state for drinking-water law violations. In 2016, it issued a $162,000 fine to the Morningstar Water Supply in the Animas Valley for 28 violations, including inaccurate reporting of water data. It also fined the Harvest Gold Water System in San Juan County for $676,000.
After well production problems left about 2,000 Questa residents without water for a month last year, the Environment Department worked closely with the community to ensure a new well was drilled to meet safety standards. Environment Secretary Butch Tongate said in a statement at the time, “This is an important reminder for all public water systems to monitor their drinking water supplies continuously and closely.”
DECADES BEHIND THE SCIENCE?
Last week’s report by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found millions of Americans are drinking water that might be unsafe for consumption. The group compiled data from each state and the Environmental Protection Agency to assess more than 250 contaminants in 50,000 public drinking-water systems across the nation. The nonprofit analyzed the data, largely using health guidelines set by the state of California — a more rigorous measure than standards set by the EPA, which regulates just over 90 contaminants.
The analysis showed that 1.7 million people in New Mexico, out of a population of nearly 2.1 million, have concentrations of uranium in their drinking water that exceed the guidelines, set at about 0.64 parts per billion, compared to the less stringent EPA and New Mexico standard of 30 parts per billion. Uranium increasingly has shown up in drinking water systems throughout the Southwest.
In a 2013 news release, the state Environment Department said at least 200 private and public wells contain uranium above legal levels, but said the state does not have the resources to tests wells for uranium by request. Under state and federal laws, water systems are required to monitor their own water quality.
According to the new report, more than 1 million New Mexico water users also have levels of radium-228, hexavalent chromium, chloroform and other disinfectant chemicals in their supply that are above California’s safety measures. Many of these chemicals are linked to higher risks of cancer, organ failure, reproductive issues and delayed fetal development, according to the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA.
The report says 43,000 New Mexico residents have levels of naturally occurring arsenic in their water supply that exceed state and EPA limits, including 10,400 residents who rely on the city of Española’s water system. Arsenic, a carcinogenic metalloid, can harm brain function, damage skin and increase the risk of stroke. Some experts say it is not safe to consume at any level.
Thirty small water systems in New Mexico were out of compliance with federal and state drinking water standards between January and March, the report says, including in Tijeras, Taos and Ojo Caliente, and 17 large water utilities, including in Rio Rancho and Las Cruces, had at least one federal violation in the first quarter of the year.
In Santa Fe County, the Agua Fría Water Association, serving 650 people, has had federal lead and copper violations dating back to 2005. Canada de Los Alamos, a mutual domestic water system serving 70 residents, has exceeded state and federal limits for uranium and coliform bacteria, requiring residents to boil their water. The Chupadero Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, supplying water to 160 people near Tesuque, has had illegal levels of nitrate and fluoride, while the Greater Glorieta Regional Mutual Domestic, with 120 customers, has had issues with E. coli and radium.
“We are extremely concerned that our drinking-water infrastructure, and the regulation of drinking-water contaminants, have been severely neglected,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group…