November 8, 2005

Sandia to help New Mexico water systems lower arsenic levels in supplies

Labs receives nearly $1 million for Arsenic Rural Outreach Program

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico water systems don’t have to deal with meeting new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arsenic standards on their own.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Sandia National Laboratories has received nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to reach out to the approximately 80 communities in the state being affected by EPA regulations that will require arsenic levels in water supplies to be reduced from the current limit of 50 micrograms per liter (µg/L) to 10 µg/L.

Through the Sandia Arsenic Rural Outreach Program, during the next 16 months Sandia personnel will help identify community water systems’ needs, evaluate water chemistries, and help communities develop their own individualized solutions for reducing arsenic levels.

Eligible for the program are existing water systems regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department that serve fewer than 10,000 people and have arsenic levels in their water at or greater than 10 µg/L. Priority will be given to systems with the greatest immediate need.

“The water chemistry is different around the state,” says Sue Collins, who heads the program. “As a result, solutions will vary from community to community.”

New Mexico, like many western states, has high levels of arsenic in ground water due largely to its mountainous geography. For example, the Rio Grande Basin, which includes the Albuquerque area, has large underground faults, young sediment, and geothermal heat. “All of these conspire to give you the potential for high arsenic levels in ground water,” Collins adds.

For some communities arsenic removal could, in extreme cases, be expensive. At the high end some studies show yearly costs ranging up to $400-$500 for a typical household — considerably more than most water systems can afford.

In August water utilities in New Mexico were sent letters advising them that Sandia has started a program to help them find ways to meet the new standards. Collins and her team have already contacted five communities, and the number will increase weekly until most of the impacted communities have been addressed.

“We’re starting with some of the communities near Albuquerque but will soon be reaching out statewide,” Collins says.

The first water systems being studied are south of Albuquerque; systems north of the city will come next.

Among initial steps is the sampling of water from each water system that seeks assistance to begin identifying the best technologies for that utility. As part of this process, Sandia will collect, free of charge, water samples using Labs equipment and test for any additional water chemistry information needed to complete the evaluation.

Then Sandia personnel will meet with managers of each water system to evaluate the utility’s potential solutions and report back to the water system on an individual basis.

A variety of solutions are available, depending on the needs of the community. In some locations well water with large concentrations of arsenic may be blended with water from wells with low concentrations. In others the potential for installing treatment involving adsorptive materials will be evaluated.

Another option for smaller communities is the installation of small “point of use systems” that can be placed under a sink. These systems must be owned and operated by the utility and monitored a couple of times a year by the New Mexico Environment Department. However, this seemingly attractive picture is clouded by the cost inherent in regularly servicing many widely separated systems, and by the fact that the state regulatory agency could, theoretically, require access to sample water from the kitchen tap at any time, without prior announcement.

Because of the complex interplay of technological, social, financial, and legal issues, Collins says the solution for arsenic problems in New Mexico are inherently multidisciplinary.

“It’s not a simple engineering problem, not a simple scientific problem, and not a simple economic problem,” she says. “Success will be determined by taking into account all theses disciplines.”

With the costs of cleanup being potentially expensive, Sandia arsenic outreach program staff are knowledgeable about what funding sources are available to help the communities. A few federal grants and loan programs exist. Working through the grant and loan process can be complicated, and the Sandia staff will help communities contact appropriate resources in various potential funding agencies.

Collins says Sandia also collaborates with other groups in the state that are helping communities determine how they can best bring arsenic levels down. For example, a joint WERC (a consortium for environmental education and technology development) Sandia workshop held in Albuquerque Oct.11 briefed representatives from 16 water utilities on strategies for dealing with the upcoming changes, and provided Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., with a forum for interacting directly with representatives from some of the most concerned communities.

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia media contact: Chris Burroughs,, (505) 844-0948

Sandia technical contact: Sue Collins,, (505) 284-2546