Edition 2015

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Making a Difference in Water Quality along the Border

by Bernadette A. Smyth

Mary 0'Connell

Minorities may have unusually high mortality rates for certain types of cancer, but few enter the field of cancer research. Mary O’Connell, a professor in NMSU’s Agronomy and Horticulture Department, is trying to change that.

Minorities may have unusually high mortality rates for certain types of cancer, but few enter the field of cancer research. Mary O’Connell, a professor in NMSU’s Agronomy and Horticulture Department, is trying to change that.

When Adrian Hanson first considered researching the water treatment needs of the colonias in southern New Mexico, it seemed like an easy project. Just collect data on the location of local public water systems, wastewater collection systems and private septic tanks, and test the water. The complications involved in the project have astounded him.

“I’ve had two students – Danny Falcon and Juan Rael – working on this for more than two years, and they have folders of data this thick,” he says, arms wide open. There is no centralized database of information, and some of it even comes to him by word of mouth. “For example, I’ve been told by some that there are three water companies servicing Chaparral, and by others, five,” he says. “There’s no coordination of data.” Much of the information the students ultimately received came from Esperanza Holguin in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office in Las Cruces.

 

Hanson, an environmental engineering professor in civil and geological engineering, became interested in water treatment needs of the colonias when he read papers critiquing EPA arsenic standards for the Southwest. “It really got me thinking,” he says. “We’ve got all these little communities and little water systems who are responding to EPA experts, but do these experts understand the border corridor and the real risks associated with our drinking and waste water?

Danny Falcon, Adrian Hanson, John Kennedy and Juan Rael

Danny Falcon, Adrian Hanson, John Kennedy and Juan Rael look over a map of public water systems in colonias throughout the border regions of New Mexico. Kennedy is the GIS Coordinator for the New Mexico Water Resources and Research Institute (WRRI).

“Should we spend a large amount of money on removing arsenic when we are not really convinced that it is the biggest risk? Should we be more concerned about fluoride? Should we be concerned about pathogens? What is the real risk in these small communities?”

According to Hanson, there are areas around Columbus, N.M., where the natural fluoride levels could bring about chemically induced arthritis in humans. “Should we be worried about that?” he says. “Are we spending money just removing arsenic when we could have a real public health problem?”

The point, Hanson says, is that we just don’t know. “We need to know how to prioritize risks from the most serious to the least serious. We can’t do that without real information on what the risks are.”

What Hanson and his students are trying to do with this study is discover what those risks are. “We’re at a stage where we have the locations documented and we now have to go, water system by water system, and find out more,” he says. “We’d like to be in a position to document water quality, and then fingerprint the waters to discover the cause of these risks.”

Hanson emphasizes that the disparity in water quality along the border is not the fault of the communities. “They are doing everything they can to try to improve conditions in their communities,” he says. He loves being in a position to help these communities. “One of the reasons I’m at a land-grant institution is that I love the mission – doing service for people and communities. We get to make a real difference.”

 

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