River Water Better than Bottled — At Least in the Rio Gallinas

UT Dallas Geological Field Camp Students Find Dramatic Improvement in Quality

June 5, 2008

Students from UT Dallas brought home more than field work experience from their recent month-long Geological Field Camp—they brought back a sparkling bill of health for the Rio Gallinas near Las Vegas, NM.

Led by Dr. Tom Brikowski of UT Dallas, the annual camp has produced enough data on the Rio Gallinas that comparisons to water quality from just two years ago provide a startling contrast to the picture today. 

The associate professor of geosciences teaches the field course as a four-week capstone class for  geology seniors.  The class is taught jointly with the UT Arlington Geosciences Department. 

River flow was down 90 percent in 2006 from current levels.  Warm, slow-moving water with little flow offers prime aquatic real estate for bacteria and other dissolved components to flourish or accumulate.  Potentially harmful bacteria were found at nearly half of the sites tested, and salinity was high at many downstream sites.

But two years later the camp’s 40 students have found no potentially harmful bacteria in the river or in the Storrie diversion system, where the river shares water with Storrie Lake,  which covers 1,100 surface acres.

Though the hydrology picture in the New Mexico waterway is heartening, Brikowski isn’t encouraging anyone to take a big gulp.

“Las Vegas residents should drink treated tap water, not river water directly,” Brikowski said.  “But this year the Gallinas around Las Vegas is remarkably fresh and pure.  In terms of the parameters we measured, the river and the tap water Las Vegas gets from it are superior to bottled water.”

River flow will probably wane as the summer months linger, inviting bacteria and salinity to increase, but for now the outlook for the Rio Gallinas is crystal clean.

Media contact: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Dr. Brikowski researching the river with students
Dr. Tom Brikowski (right foreground) joins students wading and doing research in the Rio Gallinas.

About the Class

“We teach the class jointly with the UT Arlington Geosciences Department.  It focuses mostly on skills needed for petroleum geology, but I recently added an environmental segment that analyzes the water supply and quality of Gallinas Creek (AKA Rio Gallinas) in Las Vegas, New Mexico. 

“About one-third of our graduates will go into environmental fields, and I secretly try to convert as many of the others as I can to cross over to the 'green side' of geology.  We learn first-hand from the affected parties about the complicated water-rights and supply situation in Las Vegas.

“Some families have water rights dating to the 1850s, and are still farming on communal land grants (originally Spanish grants); others, like the city, are trying to find or buy new water rights.  Adding to the furor are lawsuits from Texas requiring the entire watershed in New Mexico to reduce its water consumption so as to maintain flow in the Pecos River.

“One of the best ways to hear the residents’ views on water is to go soak in the nearby hot springs and visit with the locals.

“Students come away with an understanding of the geological, legal and social aspects of water supply and rights issues far deeper than they could ever learn in the classroom.  Given the likely impact of rapid climate change, such issues will be extremely important in much of the U.S. and world in the coming decades.”

--Tom Brikowski,
Associate Professor of Geosciences


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November 19, 2018