Bacteria and contaminants previously filtered by mountain vegetation and watershed are appearing in rivers that originate from the burn scar of the Little Bear Fire. Stabilization of bacteria could take years, according to Randall Camp, utilities director for the Village of Ruidoso.
“If the lab tells you the bacteria in the sample is too numerous to count as they have with certain samples, it’s trouble.” Camp is convinced the river water from the burn scar is unsafe for human activity.
Bonita Park Camp’s executive director, Stan Yocom agrees. The camp was one of the areas hardest hit by the Little Bear and he’s been aggressively pursuing water safety for guests and staff at the camp for weeks. “At each orientation and throughout guest group’s stay, we’re reminding them to stay away from the river water and even away from the edge. We want to ensure our guests have a safe visit while at camp,” says Yocom. He’s also instructing his staff to monitor the Rio Bonito regularly to watch for violations.
The Bonito River is the camp’s northern border. Yocom, also a certified utility worker, sends water samples directly to state labs for periodic evaluation. The camp’s ground wells have produced safe water, according to ongoing tests. But since the Rio Bonito is part of the camp’s property and is near several of their activity areas, Yocom and his staff are being vigilant.
“I wouldn’t recommend any human activity in our rivers for quite some time. I’d much rather err on the side of caution. The tested level of bacteria and fecal coliforms could produce illness if introduced into mouths, open wounds or cuts,” says Camp. One of the problems they’re facing is the lack of vegetation to slow or decompose fecal matter from native forest fauna. Deer, elk, rodents and forest animals’ waste travels at rapid rates with the watershed because there is little to impede the speed off steep mountains.
When asked about using river water downstream for irrigation of crops or lawns, Camp recommended caution, but did not see as much concern for vegetation as for humans. “As the water stands in irrigated areas, the solar radiation will help kill harmful bacteria. I wouldn’t allow kids to play in the water, however.”
“The natural defenses which exist in watershed areas simply are not there right now. Bacteria levels clean up a little between rainfalls, but the harmful bacteria counts rise when a fresh rain fall occurs. The natural cycle has been broken,” says Camp.
“Our community needs to be aware that these harmful bacteria can cause fever and can attack organ function in humans.” Camp wouldn’t recommend even using river as a source for watering livestock, horses or cattle. “If the fish can’t live in the river, it’s probably not safe for other animals as well,” says Camp. “The beneficial bacteria and the balance between that and the destructive bacteria have been totally disrupted.”
On recent trips to Bonito Lake, Camp has seen bears and vultures feasting on dead fish which have washed up to shore due to the poor quality of water in the lake. Estimates predict more than five years before the lake will begin to fully recover.
“Nature will take care of itself, but until it has a chance to do so, we’re going to need to be very careful,” says Camp and he will continue to recommend humans stay away from water from the burn area.
Until they are certain the water is safe, Yocom and the staff at Bonita Park will post signs indicating the water’s instability and will continue to monitor the Rio’s border. “We’re telling all guests and staff alike to stay out of the water, and off of the edge of the river,” says Yocom.