In 1970, when Ron Curry was president of the University of New Mexico Student Body, he received an unexpected phone call from U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson who wanted him to head up a campus celebration of Earth Day. Since that very first Earth Day, Curry has served as N.M. Secretary of the Environment and then Regional Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overseeing EPA operations in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas, as well as dozens of federally-recognized tribal territories. And now he is Village Administrator for the Village of Corrales.
Appointed EPA Region 6 Administrator by President Barack Obama, Curry relinquished that position when Donald Trump became president. He has lived in Corrales since then, and served on the Village’s Planning and Zoning Commission before being hired as Village Administrator. He agreed to an April 15 Corrales Comment interview about Corrales’ environment, its problems, challenges and achievements. Groundwater contamination from septic systems looms as the greatest threat to the local environment, Curry contends. “When I was deputy secretary of the environment under Governor Bruce King, I learned that septic tanks are the largest source of groundwater pollution in New Mexico.
“If you stopped to think about it, you might think that big facilities like Los Alamos Labs and big manufacturing facilities are the biggest sources of contamination, but really it is septic tanks.” And yet, most people living in Corrales are very protective of the water resource, Curry observed. “It’s a personal thing for them.
“Septic tank contamination was a huge problem for the people in the South Valley leading to the ‘blue baby syndrome’ many years ago due to the high nitrate in groundwater from septic tanks.
“As you look at Corrales, one of the things you continue to talk about is the quality of water coming out of our wells. You can make an argument that a sewer system would help protect the water. Of course, we have a partial sewer system along Corrales Road here, but that doesn’t solve the larger concern.”
A key to that larger issue is retaining Corrales’ relatively low residential density: the fewer the people here, the less effluent from septic leachfields. “We’re looking at the casita issue right now… that’s hot and heavy. One of the centerpieces of that issue is the number of bedrooms there can be on a property which are feeding into a septic tank. Casitas add to the density which a lot of people in Corrales are concerned about. One of the charming traits of this community is its low density. “So groundwater is always going to be one of the concerns of this village.”
Curry acknowledges that air quality has been a big concern here, especially as Intel ramped up what was then the world’s largest microchip factory. “The other thing that the N.M. Environment Department and the EPA has been concerned about is air quality,” he began. “We all remember the issues that people had, and still have, about Intel. I would like to think that some of those problems have resolved themselves over the years. “If you look at what the EPA has done over the years since it came into existence under President Nixon’s term, air pollution and water pollution in our country have decreased by percentages greater than 80 percent.
“Everything that EPA or NMED does, the bottom line is public health. That includes air quality, solid waste, groundwater, surface water… all of those things affect the health of a community. That’s why environmental protection is so critical. It all goes to public health.
“To me, when you look at it through that lens, it takes a lot of the politics out of it. Or it should, because everybody wants to have good health.” After he served as Deputy Secretary of the N.M. Environment Department under Governor King, Curry was hired as City Manager for Santa Fe and then Manager for the Village of Los Ranchos. Then came a stint with the U.S. Department of Energy in Tennessee. Then he was tapped by the Obama adminstration for the EPA Region 6 job.
In that last capacity, he accompanied then EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Corrales for the dedication ceremony for a water quality project in the Montoyas Arroyo. “Gina was so impressed that she used SSCAFCA as an example in about four or five speeches that I heard. That was a case where New Mexico and Sandoval County were examples of how to do things right.
“People back East just think of New Mexico as desert and that it doesn’t rain out here —and sometimes it doesn’t— so they don’t think of flood control here. So when they see flood control done so well up there in the Montoyas Arroyo, it just screamed out for national attention.”
Among Corrales’ current environmental issues, Curry listed septic tank effluent, public safety along Corrales Road, erosion from development along the sandhills, management of the Corrales Bosque Preserve and the need for strategies to address climate change. “If you look at the broad picture of climate change, the problem is solved at specific places where people live,” he reflected. “As a community, Corrales seems to have a pretty good understanding of what’s involved. If you walk to the river, you recognize that the drought that we’re in is likely to get worse, and a lot of that is a result of climate change.
“One of the other things that Corrales does well —and we have a lot of work still to do— is managing the Bosque Preserve in a responsible way.” Another is an understanding of environmental consequences, he added. “The residents of this village have a sense of their environment that makes them understand the effects of climate change better than other communities I’ve seen.”