‘Dangerous’ Uranium Levels Contaminate Santa Cruz Drinking Water

A new water tank in Santa Cruz was part of $1.6 million in upgrades made to the community’s drinking water system. Despite improved infrastructure, the community’s water still contains uranium levels higher than the federal legal limit. Photo by Kevin Deutsch/Rio Grande Sun

Staff Writer
Rio Grande Sun

Dangerous levels of uranium are contaminating Santa Cruz’s drinking water, despite a new water system paid for with $1.6 in taxpayer funds, the Rio Grande SUN has learned. 

Santa Cruz’s drinking water contained between 35 and 38 micrograms per liter of uranium throughout 2020, 2021 and 2022, significantly higher than the legal limit of 30 mpl set by the federal government, according to data from the New Mexico Environment Department. The most recent sampling, from July 2022, revealed a uranium level of 36 mpl in residents’ drinking water — a level experts say poses a serious health risk. 

“The stark reality is, uranium concentrations this high are very dangerous, especially for children,” said Sydney Evans, a Science Analyst at the Environmental Working Group, which studies U.S. drinking water. 

Consuming water with as much uranium as the federal legal limit of 30 mpl would cause more than 4.6 cancer cases in a population of 100,000 over time, according to the EWG, citing medical research. The cancer rate would be higher for people drinking water contaminated with the concentration of uranium found in Santa Cruz’s water supply, authorities said.

“These levels are really high, and I am really concerned for anybody that has to use this water,” Evans said.

The public body tasked with supplying potable water to this rural community of around 400 is the Santa Cruz Water Association, a volunteer-based, political subdivision of the state. The association, which also serves the El Llano neighborhood, has submitted water samples that surpass federal Safe Drinking Water Act limits for uranium every year since at least 2011, state records shows. 

The association, established as a nonprofit corporation in 1960, is empowered to maintain Santa Cruz’s drinking water facilities and use public money under New Mexico’s Sanitary Projects Act — a law passed by the legislature to improve health in rural communities, state records show. 

The current corporation was formed when the Santa Cruz association merged with the El Llano association, according to a statement issued by the association’s board of directors.

Ever since the first well was drilled in Santa Cruz in the 1950s, uranium has been present in the community’s drinking water, authorities said. State government first notified residents of the uranium contamination here in 2002, records show. 

In 2016, the Santa Cruz Water Association began work on a new water system after the state Legislature approved $1.6 million for the upgrade. The project was supposed to have two phases: The first included installation of a new well and water tank, as well as two Uranium Treatment Systems for both Santa Cruz and the El Llano area. 

“There was no issue with the Uranium Treatment System in the Santa Cruz Section and that Uranium system is up and running,” the board said in their statement to the SUN. “Unfortunately, the Uranium Treatment System in El Llano ran into easement issues, which we weren’t able to fully address due to lack of funds. Currently, the Association is working with non-profit programs to help address compliance issues.”

The statement did not elaborate on the easement or compliance issues. 

The association’s board, including Director of Operations Margaret Trujillo, did not respond to additional questions, including whether the community’s water is currently safe to drink.

A 2021 Consumer Confidence Report issued by the water association states: “Some people who drink water containing uranium in excess of [30 mpl] over many years may have increased risk of getting cancer and kidney toxicity.” 

The uranium filtration systems installed in Santa Cruz several years ago were sold by WRT, a Colorado-based company that helps communities remove radioactive contaminants from water. Since their installation, uranium levels in the association’s water have continued to exceed federal limits each year, records show. 

It was not clear as of press time when, or if, the two uranium filtration systems purchased for El Llano would be installed.

Officials with the New Mexico Environment Department said many small communities like Santa Cruz struggle to effectively run their water systems. 

Uranium treatment is expensive and it’s “difficult for a system of this size to afford and maintain that type of treatment,” said Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez. 

“While NMED tries to provide as much assistance as possible to these communities, their needs often exceed our resources,” Maez said. “Because of this, NMED has incorporated the assistance of the Rural Communities Assistance Corporation to help the Santa Cruz Water Association. RCAC is assisting the community with possible funding options and exploring the possibility of regionalizing with other community water systems in the area.”  

RCAC is a nonprofit that provides training, technical resources and funding to rural communities, including funds for water infrastructure projects like the one in Santa Cruz. The corporation did not respond to a request for comment.

As for the hundreds of state-issued violations the Santa Cruz Water Association has received in recent years, Maez said the association’s board is required to notify customers when samples exceed legal contaminant limits. 

In their statement to the SUN, the association’s board said they “complete[s] and delivers to each billing customer a Consumer Confidence Report [that] provides information regarding the quality of their drinking water.”

“Additionally, this report is, and was, posted at the Santa Cruz Post Office,” the board said. “In this report we do inform the customers about the uranium exceedance.”

The association’s 2021 report also disclosed that its water “exceeded the uranium [legal limit] at Treatment Plant #1 (El Llano) and has been in violation since January 1, 2020.”

“Currently, there are ongoing easement issues and cannot get the well connected to the Uranium Treatment system,” the report states. 

“We anticipate resolving the problem within a year,” the board wrote.

The report said the association also failed to meet a state requirement that all public water systems to be “operated by an appropriate level of certified operator.” Additional details were not disclosed. 

With its long history of non-compliance with drinking water regulations, the association has repeatedly faced sanctions from the state.

In 2011, the Environment Department issued an administrative compliance order to the Santa Cruz Water System, then issued an extension of that order in 2016, officials said. Most recently, the department issued a letter of non-compliance to the association for failing to comply with the 2016 administrative order, records show.

The Environment Department “opted to forgo penalties associated with the administrative orders for the Santa Cruz Water Association in order to allow our assistance partners at RCAC to help the community with a strategy for long-term compliance,” said Maez. 

“If the association does not continue working in good faith on a long-term compliance solution, NMED will pursue an administrative order with penalties and other regulatory action as appropriate in the future,” he added.

According to medical research, around 2.1 percent of community water systems in the U.S. reported average uranium concentrations higher than the EPA’s maximum contamination level from 2000 to 2011. More recent data was not available. 

Records show the cause of uranium contamination in Santa Cruz has never been definitively determined. But natural uranium deposits in the basin’s sandstone and granite are at least partly to blame for the contamination in Santa Cruz and nearby areas, authorities believe.

Underground uranium deposits in parts of New Mexico remain abundant, and the water association has attributed responsibility for its uranium contamination problem to erosion of those deposits.

The mining of uranium has played an outside role in  New Mexico’s history and the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the construction of atomic bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, exploration companies examined the Española Basin — from which Santa Cruz draws its drinking water —  and drilled for uranium in several locations. 

“But the results were not encouraging and exploration for uranium was discontinued,” according to research conducted by geologists and scientists from federal and state agencies.

In 2011, those state and federal researchers, including LANL scientists, examined the amount of weapons-grade uranium within the Española Basin and found concentrations of uranium as high as 1,820 micrograms per liter in water supply wells. 

“Uranium has been detected in approximately 50 percent of the water supply wells in this area at concentrations exceeding the drinking water standard,” the research team wrote. “At least 27 wells serving 19 public water systems and 209 private domestic wells, produce water with excessive uranium.”

Evans, the Environmental Working Group science analyst, said commercial activity involving uranium should not be ruled out as a potential cause for the contamination in Santa Cruz. 

“When you see crazy high levels of uranium like this, it’s a signal to me that it’s not necessarily something that’s naturally occurring,” said Evans, formerly an environmental health specialist at a local health department in Indiana.

The Santa Cruz Water association said it currently operates four underground wells to supply drinking water.

Some residents also draw drinking water from private wells. That water is also  contaminated with uranium levels that violate the legal limit, authorities said.

Ann Martinez, a lifelong resident of Santa Cruz, said concerns over uranium led her to bring a sample of her private well water to the state for lab testing. 

The results shocked her.

“I was pretty much floored,” said Martinez, whose water had uranium levels significantly higher than the legal limit. “I was shocked that we had that much uranium in the water. We immediately stopped drinking it.”  

Martinez and her family first turned to bottled water and later installed a reverse osmosis system, which experts recommend for treating uranium contaminated water. 

Water filters and boiling water are not effective for lessening radioactive contamination, experts said. 

“The community needs to be educated about what they’re putting in their bodies,” Martinez said.

The health effects of uranium consumed long-term at the levels found in Santa Cruz and El Llano can be severe, experts said. 

Uranium is absorbed in the body and primarily deposited in the bones, liver and kidneys, medical research shows. 

“If all exposure was stopped, it would take up to 200 days for the uranium in your bones to drop by half,” Evans said.

Uranium is a carcinogen that, in addition to causing cancer, can damage kidneys and cause other health problems linked to radiation exposure. 

 “People who drink water containing uranium in excess of EPA’s maximum contaminant level for uranium of 30 micrograms per liter in drinking water can – over many years – potentially experience health problems, particularly impacting kidneys,” said David Morgan, spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health. “Kidneys are the organ most sensitive to uranium toxicity. Some studies have shown small changes in the way kidneys work when people drink water with large amounts of uranium for a long time (usually more than 2-5 years). These changes, however, seem to go away when people stop drinking this water with high levels of uranium. Anyone with concerns about uranium should contact their family doctor.”

Bathing with uranium-contaminated water is not believed to be harmful, experts said.

In a 2022 study on metal concentrations in U.S. community water systems, researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health said little epidemiological research had been done on chronic water uranium exposures, despite their potential health effects.  

Even at low concentrations, uranium represents an important risk factor for the development of chronic diseases, the researchers said.

“Previous studies have found associations between chronic uranium exposure and increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, and lung cancer at high levels of exposure,” said Dr. Anne Nigra, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia, who was part of the research team. 

Several Santa Cruz residents told the SUN they avoid drinking contaminated water by buying large amounts of bottled water, or else using reverse osmosis systems, which sell for several hundred dollars on Amazon.

Others said they still drink the association’s water due to the expense of bottled water and filtration technology.

The percentage of Santa Cruz residents living beneath the federal poverty threshold reached approximately 35 percent in 2020, federal data shows. That percentage is higher than the rest of Santa Fe County, where around  12 percent of the population lives in poverty, The official poverty line for a one-person household in the U.S. in 2021 was around $14,000, according to the U.S. Census. 

Cheri Paxton, a Santa Cruz resident and mother, said she purchased a reverse osmosis system after receiving a violation alert from the water association. 

“I thought they got the uranium under control” after new infrastructure was installed, said Paxton, 47. 

After viewing the association’s latest violations online, she realized Santa Cruz’s water was still contaminated with levels of uranium that violate federal law.

“I think toxic water is a concern for all communities, especially lower-income communities that might not have the funds to buy a quality water filter system,” Paxton said. “I believe all people have the right to clean drinking water.”

Santa Cruz is a community of major historical significance: It’s home to the still-thriving La Iglesia De Santa Cruz De La Cañada, a Catholic church historians said was built in the 1730s. In 1837, Santa Cruz residents revolted against Mexican authorities, who governed the area after declaring independence from Spain. Rebel sympathizers killed the Mexican-appointed governor of New Mexico, whose policies were deeply unpopular in Santa Cruz.

Parts of Santa Cruz lie within Española. Other sections are in unincorporated Santa Fe County.

Santa Cruz is not alone when it comes to local water contamination: The city of Española, which has its own water system, has long struggled to lower levels of arsenic, as have other nearby communities. The city’s most recent water sample data showed arsenic levels beneath the federal legal limit. 

Experts on water contamination have advised the EPA there is no safe amount of arsenic in drinking water.

Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil said the levels of uranium found in Santa Cruz’s water demonstrate a need for a regional water system, which government officials have been discussing for decades.

Authorities said an expansion of Española’s water service system into Santa Cruz is not practical, given the city’s limited funds, stretched resources and prioritizing existing customers. 

Facing a patchwork of public water authorities across New Mexico, state regulators said they are struggling to enforce water contaminant laws in rural communities.

A 2021 report by the Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau said the agency had “made significant progress with compliance determinations over the past several years, [but] overall the program is struggling to ensure that core functions are being met.”

“The lack of adequate funding to maintain minimal staffing levels and our ability to ensure that the program is able to function at a basic level continue to be significant challenges,” the report states, citing difficulties with gaining compliance from small water systems.

Authorities said the best way to hold the Santa Cruz Water Association accountable is by attending board meetings.

Regular board meetings are held every third Thursday of the month at 6 p.m.

Meeting notices are included with the association’s monthly bills and posted at the Santa Cruz post office.

“We urge community members in Santa Cruz to be engaged in their association’s meetings and work with their board on the long-term needs for their community water system,” Maez said.