DOE/EM-LA And N3B Water Quality Program Ramps Up Amid Exceptional Drought

Field Technician Luke Simms inspects an automated sampler that collects stormwater in Santa Fe National Forest’s Water Canyon, where a burn scar remains after the Las Conchas fire in 2011. The sampler lies upgradient from Los Alamos National Laboratory and assists environmental professionals in assessing metal, radioactivity, and organic compound levels naturally occurring in the environment. Photo Courtesy DOE/EM-LA.


With hopes for rain during monsoon season amid exceptional drought conditions, the Department of Energy EM Los Alamos Field Office (EM-LA) and cleanup contractor Newport News Nuclear BWXT-Los Alamos (N3B) recently activated samplers at 183 monitoring sites that collect surface water and stormwater for potential contaminants around Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The drought conditions have the potential to lead to wildfires reminiscent of the Las Conchas fire in 2011 or the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. Destruction from such fires — namely downed trees and debris that erodes hillsides — can alter stream channels and also damage equipment used to collect samples. Heavy rain in forests devastated by fire can then lead to landslides.

“The extreme drought makes everything more challenging,” said Isaac Cadiente, a field lead with Tech2 Solutions, a subcontractor to N3B. “We’re seeing less frequent, higher intensity rain events. And those heavy rains can be damaging, especially on the heels of wildfire that makes the landscape more susceptible to erosion.”

N3B collects stormwater from automated samplers at LANL after rainfall. Most of these samples come from stormwater runoff near areas of potential contamination associated with historical LANL operations. Results from the samples determine the need for structures that mitigate the migration of contaminated stormwater.

In the past three years, 136 of those structures have been installed in addition to the roughly 2,000 already in place. The structures are made from a variety of materials, including stone, soil, and straw, to control runoff and erosion.

Crews also collect samples in canyon bottoms and tributaries of the Rio Grande to ensure contamination doesn’t reach the river.

Results from monitoring data show contaminants are below screening levels before reaching the Rio Grande, which means the controls are working. Crews also routinely inspect and maintain the structures used to control runoff.

“The Buckman Direct Diversion Water Treatment Facility is an intake of the Rio Grande, so it’s important that we’re retaining any harmful contaminants from reaching the river and Santa Fe’s municipal water supply,” said Cadiente.

In addition to controlling the potential migration of contaminated stormwater, EM-LA and N3B address contamination at its source by excavating soil and debris associated with historical LANL operations. Once these sites are remediated, the likelihood of contaminants migrating downstream through stormwater runoff decreases.

Meanwhile, EM-LA’s surface water monitoring program is making changes to improve the environment during the drought.

“The surface water monitoring program has used the ongoing drought, and resulting lack of stormwater samples, as an opportunity to implement new business practices to decrease the program’s carbon footprint,” said Karly Rodriguez, a Tech2 Solutions project manager.

“We’re piloting a program to use tablets for stormwater collection logs instead of paper forms, and relying on remote electronic devices that convey when samples have been collected, which decreases our reliance on transportation and lessens carbon emissions. We’re always looking for ways to improve our processes and minimize our environmental footprint,” Rodriguez said.