Water, mid Rio – Rural

by Edna Loehman, with information from Michael Broussard, Environmental Health Bureau Liquid Waste Specialist, New Mexico Environment Department

About 13% of the population of New Mexico receives water from a private well, and the quality of such private well water is unregulated. And yet, there are known local water quality problems. For example, arsenic – a known carcinogen – is a known contaminant of New Mexico’s drinking water. Disposal of wastewater creates further water quality problems. As a 2005 report on groundwater quality in Corrales  by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) puts it: “Septic tank effluents have contaminated more water supply wells, and more acre-feet of groundwater, than all other sources in the state combined.” That report documented the adverse impact of septic tank effluents on groundwater quality around the Village of Corrales.

Photo: Mark Hassling / unsplash

Water use and management have overlapping jurisdictions in non-urban areas. This creates complexities in developing new homes, businesses, and industries in those areas. The State Engineer has jurisdiction over issuing private well permits. A new well permit is only allowed if there is no detrimental impact on existing well users. The NMED is responsible for overseeing water infrastructure systems and water quality issues throughout the state. Within NMED, the Onsite Wastewater Bureau ensures that septic systems are adequately installed and maintained in a manner protective of public health and the environment. As a division of the Wastewater Bureau, Environmental Health Bureau (EHB) regulates, among other responsibilities, onsite (septic) wastewater systems. The EHB emphasizes education of homeowners and buyers to make sure they know the proper procedures for onsite systems. Any houses built or sold with an existing septic system must be inspected prior to transfer to ensure that the system is functioning properly.

Onsite water reuse is a new effort of the EHB, with the aim of reducing the pumping of groundwater. They must rely on voluntary conservation approach, but are working on simplifying permit applications for qualified contractors who install onsite wastewater treatment. The contractors also educate homeowners about reusing their household gray water. Gray water means untreated household wastewater that has not come in contact with toilet waste, including wastewater from bathtubs, showers, washbasins, and washing clothes, but not from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, or washing diapers. A 2003 state law allows household discharge of gray water up to 250 gallons per day without a permit for household gardening and landscaping.

Besides state agency efforts, regional systems are emerging. A 2020 ordinance in Bernalillo County mandates regular inspections of old septic systems and requires them to be replaced by municipal sewer connection if that is available. Bernalillo County also has a water conservation program for non-ABCWUA users. Through its Public Works department, incentive programs for water conservation promote household adoption of smart water monitors, smart irrigation controllers, high-efficiency toilet retrofits, rainwater harvesting, high-efficiency washing machines, and laundry-to-landscape gray water. For example, easy-to-install Laundry-to-Landscape Gray Water kits are provided free to applying households; these kits are worth hundreds of dollars, and the application fee for a wastewater variance is waived for participants in the program.

A regional approach to water management is exemplified by the EMWT Regional Water Association. It was formed in 2014 to implement a regional water distribution system to protect groundwater resources in the Estancia Valley. Its foundation is a Joint Powers Agreement among the town of Estancia, city of Moriarty, village of Willard, and Torrance County for the purpose of constructing a regional water supply system. It aims to ultimately supply over 50,000 users with safe water through bulk water provision and piping as resources become available.

As seen in this article, New Mexico’s state and county agencies outside of urban areas are striving to maintain water quality and reduce groundwater use. But because of (1) far more limited resources, (2) overlapping town, county, state agencies, and (3) reliance on voluntary measures, water management in rural areas is of a lesser scope than in the urban area served by ABCWUA. Regional water management through Joint Power Agreements is emerging as a potentially powerful new tool for less centralized management areas.