By Sue Hutchison
“Eagle Creek is more than 90% damaged,” says Randall Camp, Utilities Director for the Village of Ruidoso. “When the Rio Ruidoso and Eagle Creek show these numbers, you can be sure Little Creek and the Rio Bonito are worse. They’re closer to the burn scar but all our rivers are affected for the long term by the Little Bear.”
Tom Stewart, Utilities Worker proves the point by submitting creek samples to Aqua Environmental Testing Lab. Eagle Creek water sample taken July 26 showed a total suspended solid figure of 134,576 parts per million. With a normal count of 150 ppm, Eagle Creek is well above safe levels. Also tested was biochemical oxygen demand which revealed a count of 57.4 milligrams per liter. The normal count is 2-3 mg/L.
Rio Ruidoso doesn’t fare much better. July 26’s sample showed a fecal coliform colony count listed as too numerous to count. With norms being 0-12, a TNTC result indicates that the fecal colonies completely covered either a portion of or the entire filtration area, and were not discrete enough to count, according to Aqua Environmental Lab’s report. Both samples, taken from a shallow riverflow measure highly concentrated elements.
With Lincoln County’s usual monsoon season turning into a “nonsoon” season, Camp and his team are concerned. Strong watershed would create an immediate concern but would wash contaminants off the mountain and bring them to a place where they could be contained. “What we need is a couple great gully-washers,” says Camp.
“The other side (of this issue) is a steady and gentle rainfall to give us the chance to replenish our aquifer and begin vegetation germination on the mountain,” says Bob Decker, Utilities/Project Engineer for the village. ”The soil is the polishing factor in a slow rain – our aquifer is filled with a slow rain and as it sifts down, the soil cleans the water enough for us to send it through our purification system for the public’s use. It’s a real balancing act. This is uncharted territory – we’re making the best guess we can make and will adjust as needed.”
Until the water clears up and counts return closer to normal Camp recommends no human activity in surface water. “If fish can’t live in it, humans shouldn’t play in it,” says Camp. “If the river smells like a doused campfire, stay out of it,” says Decker, who wants the public to know surface water may be hazardous to health. Both recommend humans and livestock, pets and animals stay away from the rivers.
Citizens are concerned they’ve not heard much about the hazardous condition of surface waters so far. “My kids went swimming in the river last weekend. We didn’t know anything about this issue,” says Kim Smith, office manager at MTD Media. “My dad, Joe Smith is the president of the town of Lincoln’s water and controls the river pumps and no one has contacted him to make him aware of the potential danger.”
“I finally had to contact the county extension office myself and they told me the water was contaminated with bacteria and didn’t recommend we use it,” says John Strauser, Lincoln Acequia Waterway Association Inc.
Jackie Powell, Lincoln County commissioner wonders why, if the water is so contaminated, no one is seeing dead deer and elk. “They seem to be living through it,” says Powell. Born and reared in the Hondo Valley, Powell’s seen dozens of fires, floods and the repercussions from nature’s full force. “17 years ago we began to use well water to water our livestock,” says Powell who remembers dealing with uncertain river contaminants even then.
“I remember when the Rio Ruidoso was truly a “noisy river” and when we couldn’t even carry on a conversation outside in Upper Canyon because of the noise. It’s just a trickle now, compared to what it used to be. We’ve lost so much water, and even though 50 square miles of forest burned, we don’t know when springs and the forest will recover,” says Powell.
With major fires happening year after year, Powell is concerned the aquifer will never have a chance to recover. “We can’t keep counting on pumping what simply isn’t there,” says Powell. Realizing thousands of trees no longer take water from the aquifer, she’s not seeing the water flow returning to affected rivers as predicted by those who said choked forests were the main reason water issues exist.
“After the White Fire, the Hondo Valley flow looked like melted chocolate. The silt was so bad it ruined the pipelines. We learned to close the headgate until the water cleared up.” Powell speaks of her fellow farmers and ranchers.
Village workers continue to remove sludge and silt from the duck pond west of the Alto Dam after rainfall. As little as one quarter of an inch rainfall on the mountain transports ash, silt and contaminants to Bonito Lake and connected waterways.
“I think it’s their decision whether to use river water or not,” says Powell of ranchers and farmers downstream. “We don’t have much of a flow, so all test results will be highly concentrated. I ran for a position on the county commission to try and save the land and the water, and represent the people who have lived here for generations. People from other municipalities just don’t understand our watershed issues.”