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The Puerco River:
Where Did the Water Go?
by Chris Shuey
The Puerco River is once again an ephemeral stream. Like most streams in arid northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona, it now flows only after occasional summer rains or after mountain snows have melted in the spring. Navajos who live next to the river say they remember a time when the Puerco was much the same as it is today: useful for watering livestock for just a few days or weeks each year, dusty and barren the rest of the time.
Between 1969 and February 1986, the Puerco flowed year-round, fed by millions of gallons of contaminant-laden water that poured daily into one of its tributaries (called the North Fork) from three underground uranium mines located in the Church Rock area about 15 miles northeast of Gallup, New Mexico. Information on mining activities in the area prior to 1969 suggest that the river also flowed year-round during part of the 1950s and early 1960s when uranium was taken from about a dozen mines that dotted the hills northeast of Gallup. Added to the mine water flow was a smaller amount of water discharged primarily during the winter months from Gallup's sewage treatment plant.
The local Indians, who are the principal residents of the canyons and mesas that border the Puerco River Valley near the southern boundary of the Navajo Reservation, came to depend on the mine water-dominated stream as the main source of water for their sheep, goats, and cattle during those 35 years. Some used it for irrigating backyard gardens, and a handful say that they and their children often drank directly from the river. None questioned whether the river water was safe for themselves or their animals. All they knew was that a perennial source of water in this otherwise dry region had somehow materialized; they did not know how or why. The only problem was that no one bothered to tell the Navajos that the water that poured from the mines during the uranium boom years of 1952-1964 and 1969-1981 was not safe for man or beast.
Now that the mines have closed in response to the uranium market collapse of 1979-1980, the Puerco River is returning to a semblance of its natural state, fed by natural runoff and treated effluent from the Gallup sewage plant. The key difference between today's river and the ephemeral stream of yesterday is that the Puerco of 1986 is contaminated beyond use by a combination of natural and man-made pollutants. Water running off the erodable, uranium-bearing rocks of the region has contributed harmful substances to the river system for aeons, but only since the advent of uranium mining has the stream received radioactive and toxic wastes associated with human activities. The steady assaults on the river's water quality by the 18 to 35 years of mining discharges, and the "shock loading" of a massive 1979 uranium mill wastewater release (the so-called Church Rock Spill), has transformed more than 100 miles of the stream into a chronically polluted body of water that may never be cleansed naturally or by the best of human interventions.
Despite the Puerco's history of contamination, the message that the water was unsafe did not reach the inhabitants of the river valley in New Mexico and Arizona until after the 1979 spill a disaster that still ranks as one of the largest-ever releases of radioactive wastes in the U.S. To the best of local recollection, most of the rural Navajos had hauled drinking water from the nearest tribal chapter house wells often distances of 10 to 30 miles for many years before the spill. To this day, they continue the practice, as if hauling drinking water were part of their culture.
But for a short time after the accident, the local residents stopped using the Puerco for their livestock and began hauling water for the animals, too. Trucks took fresh water to the chapter houses in the Puerco Valley for a while after the spill, but when the service ended in 1981 the people began to look elsewhere for water: first, to the city of Gallup, where they said they had to buy water; next, to areas of the reservation away from the Puerco River; and finally, back to the Puerco itself. There was, as many Navajos now remember, nowhere else to go, and their animals had to have water.