Learn More About Water Quality
How/When/Who Formulates Standards
The EPA sets national drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act and regulates compliance with those standards.
In New Mexico, drinking water quality is administered and enforced by the NMED Drinking Water Bureau.
Current standards involve testing drinking water quality for more than 95 contaminants, including:
- 9 microbials
- 8 disinfection by-products and residuals
- 18 inorganics
- 53 organics
- 7 radiochemical contaminants (radionuclides)
The frequency with which water quality is sampled varies by type of test. All testing and analysis must be performed at certified laboratories.
Annually, the Sangre de Cristo Water Division off the City of Santa Fe publishes an annual water quality report for its customers to notify them of the testing results.
The Safe Drinking Water Act directs the EPA to periodically update the Safe Drinking Water Act by identifying and listing contaminants that may be present in drinking water and require regulation.
EPA listings are prioritized for research and data collection. The City of Santa Fe participates and contributes to these data collection efforts.
General Description of the Water Quality of the Rio Grande at Buckman
The quality of the Rio Grande – LANL-origin radionuclides normally are absent from Rio Grande water and sediment at Buckman except during Los Alamos Canyon flash floods. These man-made radionuclides normally are detected or measured in the Rio Grande in amounts that are indistinguishable form background and are from atmospheric nuclear bomb testing decades ago. Flash floods flowing down the normally dry Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon drainage to the Rio Grande occasionally transport much higher concentrations to the Rio Grande for a few hours.
The general water quality at the BDD Project’s point of diversion is highly variable. Although it is often relatively clear, the Rio Grande at Buckman may become less clear with suspended sand, silt, clay, natural organic material and microbes. However, neither the river water, the river sediments, nor the river bed typically contain toxic or hazardous substances in toxic or hazardous amounts, nor do they contain measurable radionuclides that are distinguishable from normal background.
However, storm runoff and other runoff such as a water line break can erode and transport contaminated sediments from LANL locations with contaminated soils into the bottoms of the Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon and its tributaries, and then to the Rio Grande upstream of Buckman. Storm water flows have transported radionuclide and other pollutants to the Rio Grande. Concentrations of contaminants of public concern in the Rio Grande can, for a few hours at a time, exceed the concentrations associated with long-term health-based maximum average exposure limits. This is a matter of BDD Board and public concern, even though the health effects of these radionuclide contaminants are cumulative and chronic, not acute.
Studies have shown that the Rio Grande almost always has water quality that will comply with the most stringent standards advocated for contaminants of LANL origin. However, the BDD Board and Staff must be certain that storm water runoff from LANL is managed and regulated to ensure contaminants are contained on LANL property and do not reach the Rio Grande.
Five Facts that Protect BDD Water Customers
The BDD Project will produce drinking water that complies with all safe drinking water standards based on five facts:
1. The quality of the Rio Grande –The Rio Grande does not contain LANL pollution except during major storm events, which result in significant flows Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon to the Rio Grande.
2. Reduction of pollution in storm water – The BDD Board and Staff are successfully working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and LANL and with regulatory agencies to reduce pollution carried by storm water. By this action, they can reduce the migration of LANL-legacy contaminants into the Los Alamos and Pueblo canyons during runoff events to prevent pollution and these types of contaminants from reaching the Rio Grande.
3. Early notification system to stop diversions –The BDD Project intends to manage, and may temporarily cease, diversions if an early notification system indicates runoff from Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon is bringing pollution to the river. The BDD is working with LANL to have this system designed, implemented and maintained.
4. Effective water treatment – Robust water treatment will remove LANL contaminants of concern.
5. Timely and transparent monitoring results – River and treated drinking water will be sampled, monitored and reported to the public. The BDD Board, as a matter of public policy, will provide timely, transparent data regarding river and drinking water quality to the public.
BDD Water Treatment Processes
The BDD Project Water Treatment Plant includes a series of conventional and advanced water treatment processes, beyond those that are commonly used across the nation. The conventional processes remove the vast majority of contaminants. The advanced processes provide additional treatment and polishing of the finished drinking water. Conventional treatment processes include coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation and disinfection. Raw water ozonation improves the effectiveness of conventional treatment. Advanced treatment is provided by membrane filters, ozone and granular activated carbon contactors. Disinfection is accomplished with lower amounts of chlorine because the high-quality water does not need as much chlorine.
Click on the graphic below for more detailed information.
BDD Project Water Treatment Process – Step By Step
1. River water is diverted through a riverside structure with fish screens. Larger sand particles are returned to the Rio Grande and the water is pumped to the Water Treatment Plant.
2. Three presedimentation and raw water storage basins allow remaining larger particles to settle to the bottom for removal.
3. Ozone is added to oxidize organic material. Water is mixed with a coagulant, ferric choride, which causes even the finest particles to clump together.
4. Flocculation provides gentle mixing. The tiny individual particles collide, stick together, and become larger and heavier. Contaminants and impurities are swept up into the flocculated particles.
5. Plate settlers provide very still conditions to separate the heavier floc particles from the water by gravity. The settled solids, called sludge, is concentrated, dewatered in
a centrifuge, and hauled to the Caja del Rio landfill.
6. The clarified water is filtered under high pressure through membranes with extremely small pore size, 0.1 microns. This membrane filtration removes essentially all of the particulate matter, including particles that are much smaller than the pore size.
7. Ozone is again applied to the clean water. It oxidizes any dissolved organic material not previously removed and kills microbes. Organic compounds that may cause bad tastes or odors are oxidized (broken down), as are PPCPs (pharmaceuticals and personal care products) and EDCs (endocrine disruptors). Residual ozone is then destroyed.
8. The water passes through GAC (granular activated carbon) contactors. The oxidized organics are removed by the biologically active carbon, which also works as a “polishing” process.
9. Small amounts of chlorine and sodium hydroxide are added to disinfect the water and to correct the pH of the treated water. The finished drinking water is stored in a four-million-gallon tank. Two pump stations pump the treated water north and south to BDD Project drinking water transmission line connections to the City and County public drinking water distribution systems. Chlorine is added as necessary to have a very small amount of residual chlorine in the finished drinking water. This protects against any contamination that might occur.
LANL Effects on Rio Grande Water Quality
- Raw and untreated Rio Grande water at the site of the BDD Project currently meets water standards for radionuclides such as those of California and Colorado that are 100 times more stringent than current federal drinking water standards.
- Numerous scientific risk evaluation studies by a variety of state and federal agencies over the last seven years conclude the Rio Grande water and sediment at the BDD diversion site are free of LANL radiological contaminants, except during periods of high storm water runoff from Los Alamos Canyon. PCBs have never been measured at concentrations exceeding drinking water standards.
- Concentrations of LANL legacy contaminants in the Rio Grande are almost always below safe drinking water regulated levels. The exception can be traced to storm events with high run-off of contaminated sediment.
- Most radionuclides and PCBs are tightly absorbed to sediments. The BDD Project Water Treatment Plant includes the most effective processes available for removing sediments.
- Early notification systems will ensure inflow from the river to the treatment facility will be stopped during high storm events or high concentration of sediments in the river.
- BDD Board and Staff understand that the community is concerned about the possibility of having LANL contaminants in its drinking water. The scientific data regarding these contaminants are complex. BDD Board and Staff are taking steps to ensure that the community’s drinking water will be safe. The BDD Project Water Treatment Plant, which provides multiple barriers to these contaminants, has been designed using the most up-to-date and effective process for removing these contaminants and meeting all drinking water standards, including more stringent standards for plutonium and other radionuclides. The BDD Water Treatment Plant contains advance drinking water treatment processes beyond those that are commonly used elsewhere across the nation. The BDD Project will produce excellent and safe drinking water.
Other Potential Contaminants
What about EDCs and PPCPs in the Rio Grande?
The scientific community has recently begun to study the issue of EDCs and PPCPs in drinking water sources. EDCs are Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals that interfere with the function of the body’s natural hormones and that, at critical life stages, may have long-lasting effects on normal growth, development, reproduction and behavior. Environmental contaminants, including some pesticides, industrial chemicals and disinfection byproducts (which can form when disinfectants such as chlorine react with naturally present compounds in water), are either known or suspected EDCs.
PPCPs are Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products. This refers to thousands of personal health and cosmetic products and can include prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, fragrances and cosmetics.
The BDD Project Water Treatment Plant includes both conventional and advanced treatment processes for treating surface water diverted from the Rio Grande, which are beyond those commonly used across the nation. These processes include, but are not limited to:
- Oxidation through ozonation
- Absorption through Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) contactors
- Biological degradation through ozonation with Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) contactors
These are some of the best available technologies for removing an array of pharmaceuticals and personal care products as well as EDCs that may generally be found in the Rio Grande; however, studies of the Rio Grande suggest the risk of these contaminants is very low. The BDD Project will produce excellent and safe drinking water. For more information, please visit the Water Quality section.
In 2002, the NMED collected samples at various locations along the Rio Grande for analysis of a number of different pharmaceuticals at 15 effluent sites and 23 surface water sites. (NMED, 2002). Very low level of caffeine, estrogenic hormones and one anti-depressant were detected in 4 of the 23 surface water sites, although the study also reported that none of these drugs were detected in any public drinking water samples. The study concluded that there was no evidence of widespread drug residues occurring throughout New Mexico’s ambient waters.
A second study in 2004 by a UNM graduate student (Brown, 2004) evaluated the presence of other PPCPs in the Rio Grande and other sources near Albuquerque. Analyses for 29 non-antibiotic medicines and 10 antibiotics were completed. Only one of the antibiotics was detected in the Rio Grande below Albuquerque’s wastewater treatment plant. The study concluded the findings were not alarming, since no estrogenic hormones were found and only trace concentrations of one antibiotic was detected in the river below the plant.