EPA Urban Waters Program – Albuquerque
The EPA’s Urban Waters Program funded a citizen science program in the Valle de Oro Refuge near South Valley, New Mexico to monitor water quality and engage local youth in environmental justice. The program, which reached hundreds of students, consisted of twelve events with the dual objective of advocating for better water quality and introducing students from vulnerable communities to environmental health issues and scientific responses.
South Valley, an unincorporated area outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, faces a range of environmental hazards—from industrial land uses including warehouses, two Superfund sites, scrap yards, factories, petroleum storage facilities, to the wastewater treatment plant for all of Albuquerque. These hazards put residential communities at risk of asthma and cancer, and disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income families. South Valley’s population is 80 percent Latino, and one-quarter of residents live below the poverty line.
Despite its challenges, South Valley is home to a thriving community of environmental justice organizations that have grown in response to the concentration of health risks. For example, groundwater contamination from railroad and jet-engine plant chemical runoff once forced residents to use private wells, but local activists successfully fought for the area to be connected to Albuquerque’s water system in the 1980s. Protecting remaining wilderness areas on the banks of the Rio Grande, which runs through South Valley, has also been a focus of the environmental justice community. The Valle de Oro Wildlife Refuge was designated an “urban refuge,” as part of an effort run by multiple federal agencies to reconnect urban neighborhoods with nature and bring cultural heritage to wilderness areas. EPA’s Urban Waters Program aimed to accomplish this in South Valley. Organized by several community-based organizations, the program trained students from nearby schools to take water samples that test for heavy metals, nutrients, and E. coli. The students that took part in the program are heavily impacted by contamination issues, and lack opportunities to experience nature—many had never even seen the river before.
The events and trainings clarified the connections between hazardous industries and health risks, building students’ potential to advocate for water quality measures, such as using green infrastructure to clean stormwater that runs through the Valle de Oro Refuge. The samples collected provided baseline water quality data, and demonstrated the importance of long-term monitoring. They will also help local stormwater systems meet EPA water quality regulations. The South Valley program shows that citizen science is an essential tool in building community capacity to understand water equity issues and hold authorities accountable.
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