Lab continues to protect water quality amid changing regulations

Robust compliance, constant study define enduring environmental stewardship efforts

February 5, 2024

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.

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.

Background on recent federal decisions

In May 2023, 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.

> Read the rest of this story on the Discover part of the Laboratory's website