ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – During the summer months, you’ll often see people cooling off or boating in the Rio Grande near Albuquerque. But is safe to swim in? KRQE News 13 talked with water experts to find out.
New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED) monitors the river about every eight to 10 years. The last time NMED monitored water quality in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque was in 2014-2015. “We don’t have the resources or staff to monitor every watershed on an annual basis. We’re responsible for the whole state of New Mexico and all the surface waters in New Mexico and our monitoring team is composed of six people,” said Shelly Lemon, the chief of NMED Surface Water Quality Bureau.
NMED plans to monitor the Middle Rio Grande watershed in 2025-2026. Lemon explained that the monitoring schedule they have in place allows time for NMED to track the projects it implements to improve water quality. Local groups, like the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program (BEMP) and Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority (AMAFCA), take samples from the river more frequently.
NMED data showed multiple water impairments found in different parts of Rio Grande in the Albuquerque area. For this report, KRQE News 13 focused on the most recent assessments that were done in 2022 and 2020 and were listed in the EPA-approved State of New Mexico Clean Water Act 2022 ‐ 2024 Integrated Report.
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Impairments and their locations along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque can be found by clicking the different sections of the river highlighted on the map below. The information on the map is from the NMED report.
E.coli in the Rio Grande
The samples taken by NMED from the portion of the river that spans from Tijeras Arroyo located in South Valley, to Alameda Bridge in North Valley, showed E.coli was present in the Rio Grande that flows along the Albuquerque area. The data was assessed in 2020.
The E. coli has exceeded the water quality standards set in place for Primary Contact Recreation (PC) such as swimming. “I would be cautious about swimming in the river. I mean, you know, kayaking, or canoeing I think is different you know, doing some sort of boating activity is definitely different than actually submerging yourself in the river,” said Lemon.
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BEMP Science and Research Director Kim Eichhorst agreed with Lemon by saying that ingesting the water in the river could be harmful to individuals. Eichorst noted that the amount of E.coli in the river varies and depends on several factors including, how the river is flowing and location. Somedays E.coli may exceed standards and sometimes it may not. “It’s just going to always have E.coli,” Eichhorst said.
KRQE News 13 accompanied Eichorst and BEMP Science Manager Matt Leister as they took a water sample from the Rio Grande near the Alameda Bridge on Aug. 23. Results showed that E.coli was measured in the river at 34.1 MPN(most probable number/100ml. For context, the EPA upper limit for primary contact (PC) water is 410MPN/100ml.
“E.coli in general is not good to ingest because it’s an indicator of fecal contamination. There are other coliform bacteria that are in the water and E.coli is kinda used as an indicator of that whole spectrum of coliform bacteria,” Lemon said.
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there are two types of coliforms, total coliforms (TC), which are common in the environment, and fecal coliforms including E. coli, which are normally present in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals, including humans.
Bruce Thomson, chair of the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico in the Department, Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, said the presence of E.coli doesn’t necessarily mean that people will get sick if they go in the river.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you sick. Some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses.
Where does E. coli in the river come from?
E. coli can end up in the river by waste from humans, pets, and wildlife including runoff from farms, sewer overflows and leaking septic tanks. “Whenever you have an urban area, you’re going to get more pollutants running off of that urban landscape that can impact the stream,” said Lemon.
Thomson said the following about the source of E.coli in the river. “One of the suspected causes of high E.coli is urban runoff, again I challenge that. It seems like we normally have the highest concentrations of E. coli after modest storms. The turbulence kicks up the sediment and that releases the organisms that have been growing in the mud at the bottom of the river.”
Thomson expressed concern with using E. coli as an indicator in the Rio Grande, which is a natural stream. “There are fairly extensive amount of literature that shows E.coli are naturally occurring and in warm water environments, such as the Rio Grande, during the summer, they can naturally regrow,” he explained. Thomson cited research done through the University of New Mexico about E.coli levels in the Rio Grande water and riverbed sediments.
Tracking the source of E.coli
A bacterial source tracking study can help determine where the E.coli in the river is coming from. NMED doesn’t usually do that study due to lack of funding. “We typically don’t do bacterial source tracking. Occasionally, we will get extra funding that we can apply to special projects, but it’s not something we regularly do,” said Lemon.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a tracking study primarily during the dry season, November through June in 2020 and 2021. The testing was done in a five-mile stretch, extending from Tijeras Arroyo south to the Isleta Pueblo boundary. During the dry season, E. coli concentrations in water were primarily detected below the New Mexico Surface Water Quality Standard and mostly human and canine sources were detected.
E. coli concentrations in bed material were detected at low concentrations, according to the USGS study. Mostly human markers were detected in the riverbed material, with over 80 percent of the canine and waterfowl markers being below the detection limits. USGS said the bed material likely did not provide a suitable habitat for bacteria growth.
Other impairments found in the Rio Grande
The following impairments are harmful to Marginal Warm Water Aquatic Life (MWWAL) in the river and were also listed in the NMED report for the portion of the river that spans from Tijeras Arroyo to Alameda Bridge.
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Data from EPA-approved State of New Mexico Clean Water Act Integrated Report for the portion of the river that spans from Tijeras Arroyo to Alameda Bridge:
Dissolved oxygen (DO) is the amount of oxygen that is present in water and can have a negative impact on aquatic animals if oxygen is decreased, according to the EPA. “The low dissolved oxygen happens late in the summer when the rivers really warm and we’ll have a storm event that brings in some oxygen-deficient water, it’s transient,” said Thomson. He added that dissolved oxygen doesn’t last for a long time, sometimes 10 minutes to an hour.
This impairment is based on the temperature of the water. According to the EPA, warm temperatures can reduce the levels of dissolved oxygen in water, which may cause fish kills, increase the toxicity of some pollutants, and encourage the spread of disease. “High-temperature exceedance occurs late in the summer when the river is flowing at a very low flow rate. It’s wide, it’s shallow, it’s turbid so it absorbs a lot of sunlight,” said Thomson. He added that temperature impairments do not happen frequently.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs are a class of industrial chemicals that were once used as electrical insulators, lubricants,
and coolants, according to the EPA. They were banned from use in the United States in 1978. Eating too much fish with PCBs over a long period of time may cause health problems, including those related to nerve development, reproduction, hormones, and cancer. A fish consumption advisory in Albuquerque is in place for PCBs and more information can be found here. The advisories in place are guidelines only and do not suggest any health risks from camping, swimming or boating in these waters, according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). Also, handling fish will not result in exposure to dangerous contaminants, NMDGF added.
Mercury accumulates in fish tissue and presents the greatest risk to human health through the consumption of contaminated fish, according to the EPA. Mercury is included in the fish consumption advisory in Albuquerque mentioned above. The EPA said mercury originates largely from air sources, such as coal-fired power plants and incinerators that deposit in waters or adjacent lands that then wash into nearby waters. In some cases, the presence of mercury may be a result of past practices that used mercury, such as historic gold mining, or from geologic deposits.
In a different data sheet from NMED pertaining to the portion of the river that flows from the Alameda Bridge to Highway 550 Bridge (non-pueblo), adjusted gross alpha was listed as an impairment under Livestock Watering (LW) use.
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According to Lemon, adjusted gross alpha is a radionuclide, a radioactive form of elements. “I don’t know where it’s coming from, but we do have naturally occurring radionuclides in our (New Mexico) geology, and we also have the national lab (Los Alamos National Laboratory) upstream of the Albuquerque area,” said Lemon.
Rio Grande safety concerns
The three experts expressed concern about going into the Rio Grande River in the Albuquerque region right after a storm event.
“There’s going to be some contamination, especially after storm events. So you know, people should be cautious about getting in the river during a storm event for sure and then you know even a couple of days after depending on how big the rain event was and how much was washed into the river,” said Lemon.
“Probably wouldn’t want to go swimming the first five or six hours after a storm event. But I think it’s more of an aesthetic problem because the waters going to be really turbid, likely will be floating debris and tremendous amounts of trash,” said Thomson.
Eichhorst also expressed concern about people going in the river on a regular day. She said people should be aware of the potential for getting caught in dangerous flows or deep pockets of water. She also warned of physical hazards in the river that may lurk at the bottom like glass or fish hooks. The branches and metal formations along the riverbed may also pose a threat.
Eichhorst recommended that people always be cautious of ingesting the water, monitor the weather to avoid being in the river during or right after a storm, and take safety precautions like having a lifejacket.
NMED also provided the following list of precautions people should take on the river:
- Check state park or national park websites for swimming or fishing advisories before visiting lakes and rivers. Follow advisories to reduce your chances of getting sick.
- Look for signs indicating that the area is closed or the water is unsafe because of bacteria or other hazards.
- Never drink river water.
- Disinfect river water by boiling for 10 minutes prior to use for rinsing dishes, etc.
- When playing in and around water, including sand and dirt along the shore, wash hands thoroughly with biodegradable soap or hand sanitizer before eating.
- Disinfect cuts or other open sores after exposure to river water, or avoid getting wounds wet.
- Prevent children from immersing their heads in the water or otherwise getting water into their mouth, eyes, ears or nose. Keep very young children out of the water.
- Avoid prolonged exposure to the river water (i.e., don’t spend long periods of time swimming).
- Avoid immersing your head in the water.
- Avoid swimming where you can see discharge pipes.
- Avoid swimming at urban rivers and streams after a heavy rainfall.
- Do not go into or play in water that smells bad, looks discolored, has foam or scum or human waste/trash, or has dead fish or other dead animals along its shores.
Overall water quality
Overall water quality of the Rio Grand appears to be good, according to Lemon and Thomson.
“The Rio Grande has very high-quality water and we should all congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made towards cleaning up,” said Thomson.
“I would consider it in good standing. I mean it’s got a lot of use and a lot of urban area through the middle Rio Grande in Albuquerque, but overall it’s pretty healthy and is maintaining the proper function for that type of river,” said Lemon.
Water quality and environmental information can be found using the Surface Water Quality Bureau’s online map here.