VALDEZ, N.M. – “Water Sentinels” is a volunteer monitoring program started by the Sierra Club to survey rivers and streams the Environmental Protection Agency has neglected. And in rural New Mexico, its membership is increasingly made up of school kids.
They inspect the Rio Hondo, Rio Fernando, Rio Pueblo and Red River for toxins that result from agriculture and mining and which can have serious health implications to humans. Retired organic chemistry teacher and program coordinator Eric Patterson leads and inspires these kids into keeping an important natural resource safe for all people to use and enjoy.
“Valdez, the town I live in, is right on that Rio Hondo, and I just love that river,” Patterson said. “It’s a beautiful mountain stream – it has cascades, it has rapids, it has trout. The biggest thing we check for is E coli bacteria, and we are concerned about aluminum.”
Waste runoff from grazing lands is the main contributor of E coli, according to Patterson, and they are monitoring aluminum from a mine in the town of Questa that extracts molybdenum, an element used for computer chips and in fossil fuel production.
There is some contention between the state environment department and the Sierra Club regarding the toxicity of aluminum as well as the necessity to test for it. That’s where the Water Sentinels come in.
With Patterson at the helm, his young apprentices monitor the waters where people fish, raft and play, especially at confluences of the Rio Grande which supplies irrigation and drinking water to millions. He said with the way environmental protections are being deregulated, it’s more important than ever to get kids into water issues.
“If people don’t love to love the outdoors and the environment when they’re young, they won’t fight to protect it when they’re old,” Patterson said.
The Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club is on the lookout for more students across New Mexico who want to learn about and protect water in their state. Interested parties can find more information at RioGrandeSierraClub.org.