Los Alamos Lab continues to protect water quality amid changing regulations

Robust compliance, constant study define enduring environmental stewardship efforts

December 19, 2023

Jenna Stanek collects benthic macroinvertebrates — like caddisfly, mayfly and stonefly larvae — from the Rio Grande in White Rock Canyon to assess whether Lab operations affect aquatic ecosystem health.

A team of Los Alamos National Laboratory employees and a recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency are ensuring that streams around the Lab that flow seasonally or with rainfall and spring snowmelt, known as intermittent and ephemeral waterways, continue to be protected from pollution.

“We have a lot of work that goes on, whether that’s monitoring or physical controls to protect water quality, and we’re very committed to continuing that work,” said Terrill Lemke, team lead of storm water permitting and compliance at the Lab.

Members of the Soil, Foodstuffs and Biota Program make the trek to the Rio Grande for their triennial sampling campaign.

Protecting the Rio Grande

The Lab is perched atop the Pajarito Plateau, a vast volcanic plateau dotted by several canyons and mesas. Sometimes, potential contaminants in Pajarito Plateau waters may get transported toward the Rio Grande. The Lab therefore conducts a regular sampling campaign to ensure operations aren’t negatively impacting the river’s water quality.

Every three years, the Lab’s Soil, Foodstuffs and Biota Program collects samples for analysis of the river’s sediment and aquatic species — such as fish, crayfish and benthic macroinvertebrates, like caddisfly, mayfly and stonefly larvae.

First the team collects samples upstream from the Lab — at Abiquiu Reservoir and seven locations on Pueblo de San Ildefonso land — to establish a baseline. Then they sample at the confluence of the Los Alamos Canyon drainage and the Rio Grande as well as eight downstream locations along the Rio Grande. Finally, they collect samples from Cochiti Reservoir.

“We see no difference in aquatic ecosystem health and water quality when comparing data collected upstream and downstream of the Lab,” said Shannon Gaukler, who leads the sampling campaign.

Left: Stonefly larvae, collected recently from the Rio Grande downstream of the Lab, serve as one indicator of a healthy aquatic ecosystem as they generally don’t tolerate high levels of disturbance or pollution. Right: No difference is seen when comparing data on aquatic ecosystem health upstream and downstream of the Lab — from Abiquiu Reservoir to waters on Pueblo de San Ildefonso land to sections of the Rio Grande to Cochiti Reservoir.

Background on recent federal decisions

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Clean Water Act to provide that wetlands without “a continuous surface connection” to  U.S. waters will no longer receive protection from pollution under federal law. That means there’s no limit to the pollutants discharged by industries, farmers, homebuilders and others into wetlands that don’t connect to larger water bodies — unless states have their own regulatory agency and relevant rules that protect wetlands or institutions create their own internal policies.

It’s unclear whether this interpretation of the law will eventually extend to other bodies of water — in particular, intermittent and ephemeral streams, of which there are many in arid New Mexico.

Regardless of future uncertainties, the Lab remains committed to protecting water quality. And this month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a designation that Laboratory waters are currently subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction.

“We plan to continue to comply with regulations at the same stringent level we always have,” said Steve Story, head of the Lab’s Environmental Protection and Compliance division. “If the Lab’s mission continues to require it to expand operations, we need to do so in a way that’s protective of the environment.” 

“We want to provide excellent protection of water quality for our neighbors and local residents by being good stewards of the environment,” Lemke said. “We certainly don’t want to reverse the progress we’ve made.”

Managing stormwater runoff

Lemke’s team works diligently to oversee the Laboratory’s compliance with stormwater regulations and the installation of stormwater controls all over the Lab — mostly at new construction sites. The controls are designed to manage stormwater runoff in a way that mimics natural drainage patterns and to ensure pollutants from construction activities, including disturbed soil, don’t impact the environment by getting transported off-site in runoff.

“Construction accelerates erosion, so we have to keep dirt and pollutants from running off-site,” Lemke said, noting this is especially vital during periods of heavy rain.

Once built, new parking lots and buildings require post-construction controls since the impervious asphalt and concrete they’re made of accelerate runoff rather than absorb rainfall.

“If you have a plot of land that hasn’t ever been developed and you get a rainstorm, only about 10% of the rainfall becomes runoff from the site” as the ground and vegetation absorb the rest, Lemke said. “Once we develop a site, it could be that 40-60% of water from a rainstorm becomes runoff from the site.”

Brad Schilling inspects a low-impact development (LID) rain garden at TA-53, which captures runoff from roadways and a parking lot. LID stormwater controls mimic natural ecosystem drainage patterns by slowing runoff velocity, promoting infiltration and supporting native vegetation such as the aspen trees at this site.

Managing this stormwater is achieved through various controls, including drainage swales, weirs, rock check dams, native vegetation and, most commonly, detention basins. The basins catch runoff from rainfall, facilitate infiltration of that runoff into the ground to support vegetation and groundwater recharge and then release the remaining runoff slowly. This type of inflow and outflow cycle mimics the environment’s predevelopment conditions, Lemke said, preventing a high volume and velocity of rainwater rushing down the canyons, which can lead to erosion and the transport of pollutants.

The success of these efforts can be seen in the Los Alamos County 2022 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, issued this past summer, which indicates that any contaminants in the county’s drinking water — from natural sources in the environment or from humans’ footprint — are well within regulatory limits.

“There’s a lot of change right now around the country in how we think about stormwater,” Lemke added. “Often it’s been thought of as a waste stream and not a resource. But we want to change that mindset at the Laboratory. We strive to manage it to mimic natural ecology and drainage patterns.”

Left: TA-03’s media filter basin is designed to collect and remove heavy metals and organic pollutants from stormwater runoff before release into a larger stormwater conveyance system. Lemke’s team also planted the native vegetation to support evapotranspiration. Right: An LID infiltration basin at the Lab captures and detains runoff from the nearby parking lot. Parking lots may contain sediment, copper and zinc from vehicle brake pads as well as oil and grease from vehicles. Stormwater controls help prevent these contaminants from being transported to surrounding canyons.

Monitoring Lab wastewater

The Lab’s water quality permitting and compliance team also protects water quality by ensuring the Lab properly disposes of liquid waste. The Lab has on-site treatment facilities for wastewater containing high explosives and radionuclides, as well as a sanitary treatment facility that handles the organic material in wastewater from bathrooms and kitchens.

Wastewater treatment facilities generally can’t handle liquid industrial waste — like chemicals, oil or industrial cleaning products, to name a few. If poured down a drain and transported through the sewer system to a treatment plant, the contaminants would pass through the plant without being filtered out. Then they would get released into the environment with potential negative effect.

The Lab’s Sanitary Effluent Reclamation Facility, located at TA-03, treats wastewater that’s transferred to the Strategic Computing Complex, where it’s reused up to six times for cooling down the facility’s towers.

The team working to prevent this outcome, led by Sarah Holcomb, coordinates with project planners to ensure they have the proper disposal pathway, typically an off-site disposal facility, for such waste. Project planners connect with Holcomb’s team during the initial phase of their work, whether that be manufacturing components for pits, installing a 3D printer or increasing the output of current activities.

In addition to this proactive collaboration — which Holcomb calls “work happening upstream” — treated effluent discharged into the environment from the Lab’s treatment facilities and cooling towers is also sampled. This provides added certainty that only contaminants permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency are being discharged, and that permitted contaminants fall below regulatory limits.

“We’re not just looking at effluent at the discharge end,” Holcomb said. “We do our best to get involved at the beginning of the process to get folks where they need to be with respect to allowable and treatable discharges of wastewater to on-site treatment facilities.”

Thanks to a recent Lab initiative to reuse wastewater as much as possible, Holcomb’s team also verifies compliance of the large amounts of wastewater diverted to the Lab’s Sanitary Effluent Reclamation Facility, where water is further treated and then transferred to the Strategic Computing Complex for reuse in their cooling towers. The Lab reuses the same water in this complex up to six times before discharging it back into the environment.

Justin Clements, Shannon Gaukler, Jessica Celmer and Jenna Stanek (left to right), from the Lab’s Soil, Foodstuffs, and Biota Program, conduct the aquatic ecosystem sampling campaign once every three years to ensure the Lab doesn’t impact water quality in the Rio Grande.