LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — With hopes for rain amid exceptional drought conditions, the EM Los Alamos Field Office (EM-LA) and cleanup contractor N3B activated samplers this season at 183 monitoring sites that collect surface water and storm water for potential contaminants around Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The drought conditions have the potential to lead to wildfires reminiscent of the 2011 Las Conchas fire or the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. Destruction from such fires — namely downed trees and debris that erode hillsides — can alter stream channels and damage equipment used to collect samples. Heavy rain in forests devastated by fire can then lead to landslides.

“The extreme drought makes everything more challenging,” said Isaac Cadiente, a field lead with Tech2 Solutions, a subcontractor that supports N3B’s Water Program. “We’re seeing less frequent, higher intensity rain events. And those heavy rains can be damaging, especially on the heels of wildfire that makes the landscape more susceptible to erosion.”

N3B collects storm water from automated samplers at LANL after rainfall. Most samples come from areas of potential contamination associated with historical LANL operations. Results from these samples determine the need for structures that mitigate the possible migration of contaminated storm water.

In the past three years, 136 of those structures have been installed in addition to the roughly 2,000 already in place. The structures are made from a variety of materials, including stone, soil and straw, to control runoff and erosion.

Crews also collect samples in canyon bottoms and tributaries of the Rio Grande to ensure contamination doesn’t reach the river. Results from monitoring data show contaminants are below most screening levels before reaching the river, which means the controls are working. Crews also routinely inspect and maintain the structures used to control runoff.

“The Buckman Direct Diversion Water Treatment Facility is an intake of the Rio Grande, so it’s important we retain any harmful contaminants from reaching the river and Santa Fe’s municipal water supply,” said Cadiente.

In addition to controlling the potential migration of contaminated storm water, EM-LA and N3B address contamination at its source by excavating soil and debris associated with historical LANL operations. Once these sites are remediated, the likelihood of contaminants migrating downstream through storm water runoff decreases.

Meanwhile, N3B’s surface water monitoring program is making changes to improve the environment during the drought.

“We’ve used the ongoing drought, and resulting lack of storm water samples, as an opportunity to implement new business practices to decrease the program’s carbon footprint,” said Karly Rodriguez, a Tech2 Solutions project manager. “We’re piloting a program to use tablets for storm water collection logs instead of paper forms, and relying on remote electronic devices that convey when samples have been collected, which decreases our reliance on transportation and lessens carbon emissions. We’re always looking for ways to improve our processes and minimize our environmental footprint,” Rodriguez said.

Isaac Cadiente inspects automated samplers that collect storm water — like this one located upgradient from Los Alamos National Laboratory in Santa Fe National Forest’s Water Canyon — to assess metal, radioactivity, and organic compound levels naturally occurring in the environment.