Testing Water Quality in New Mexico

Retired school teacher Eric Patterson tests streams for water quality in New Mexico

By Joe Spring

December 29, 2016

Eric Patterson started the Water Sentinels–Rios de Taos to monitor stream and river quality.

Eric Patterson started the Water Sentinels–Rios de Taos to monitor stream and river quality. | Photo by Jim O'Donnell


  • Name: Eric Patterson
  • Location: Valdez, New Mexico
  • Contribution: Started the Water Sentinels–Rios de Taos to monitor stream and river quality

When did you start volunteering with the Sierra Club? My first job was as a synthetic organic chemist. Somebody asked me to tutor their little sister, and I thought, “Wow, this education stuff is OK.” So I quit my job and went back to school and got certified. My first job in education was teaching math and environmental science at Taos High School. Some friends said, “You know, you ought to join the Sierra Club.” I did, and back then I was eligible to get educational materials, so I used them in the classroom. I also started an environmental club at the school in 1971. Later, I moved to Illinois and volunteered with the Sierra Club there.

How did the Water Sentinels–Rios de Taos come about? I moved back to Taos in 2005. My wife and I lived close to the banks of the Rio Hondo, and I thought, “What the heck. I can start a Water Sentinels group.” I was retired and wanted to work with kids again.

Tell me about the work you do. Because we’re in the mountains and it’s snowed in a lot, we wait until spring to start work. We go out three times a year. We send groups of students, and they look at the condition of the river. I have a checklist—is it clear or cloudy, high or low? Then we measure the water temperature, water pH, dissolved oxygen, and electrical conductivity. We also check samples for E. coli, nitrates, and phosphates. The data we collect goes through another nonprofit and on to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau.

Can you tell me about the kids you’re mentoring? They’re high schoolers. This year there are at least a dozen, almost all Hispanic or Native American. They call themselves the Taos Tiger Salamanders. This works really well because the Taos High School colors are orange and black, and so are tiger salamanders.

What other work do you do with the kids? On one Earth Day we went down to the Rio Fernando, which runs through Taos, and picked up a truckload of garbage. The kids walked there after school with a bunch of bags and fished out old tires and debris.

This article appeared in the January/February 2017 edition with the headline "Water Wizard."