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New Mexico plans for drier future


Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the state’s 50-year water action plan during a press conference Tuesday in her office at the state Capitol. The plan details ways to ensure that New Mexicans have access to clean water for the next five decades.

Some key components to the initiative include conservation of freshwater resources, developing new sources of water for industrial uses such as brackish or produced supplies and protecting existing water resources.

The governor described the water action plan as a “really good blueprint and map to the future.”

“This plan has something in it for everybody: for the individual household, for farmers and ranchers, for the energy producers and for those economic development plans that are coming down the pipe,” state Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, said.

This comes as New Mexico, like states throughout the western United States, faces dwindling supplies. Lujan Grisham said New Mexico will have about 25 percent less water in the future. Without a plan in place, she said New Mexico would have to make draconian choices about where to cut water consumption.

New Mexico, which is already among the driest states in the nation, is facing aridification due to climate change. Additionally, precipitation patterns are changing due to global warming. That means water that once may have fallen as snow is now coming as rain.

Aquifer decline 

Already New Mexicans are feeling the pinch of dwindling water supplies. Wells are running dry and aquifers are dropping.

Clovis Mayor Mike Morris spoke about the declining Ogallala Aquifer supplies and how that has impacted his community. 

Like many communities in the state, Clovis relies heavily on a single source of water — the aquifer.

As the water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer dropped, Clovis and its surrounding communities began to look elsewhere.

The solution they found was a reservoir on the Canadian River in Quay County — Ute Lake. Building a pipeline from Ute Lake to the eastern New Mexico communities wasn’t an easy task. It took more than a decade and millions of dollars in funding.

But the Ogallala is not the only aquifer in New Mexico that is declining. Other aquifers facing declining levels include the Estancia Basin Aquifer and the Mimbres Basin Aquifer.

This is something that Morris also noted is a topic of conversation among leaders.

“When I talk to my friends around the state, every community is facing some type of water challenge whether it be supply — usually it’s supply — or quality,” he said.

Not enough is known about the groundwater in New Mexico, according to Rebecca Roose, the governor’s infrastructure advisor.

“We have more work to do to study and fully understand the water underground in our state,” she said.

Roose said that includes both brackish and freshwater aquifers.

“One of the priority actions in the plan is to really meaningfully fully fund our aquifer mapping and monitoring program at New Mexico Tech in a way that demonstrates that we actually do care because it has been underfunded for far too long,” she said.

Understanding the groundwater resources is an important part of managing water resources in New Mexico.

“The more we study and understand what our underground resources are, the more we can be strategic above ground in our communities where they're where they're seeing wells going dry that they've been relying on forever,” Roose said.

Water resiliency

Even in areas of the state that rely on surface water, such as San Juan County’s population centers, many communities have a sole source of water. This can be put in jeopardy by mine spills or wildfires. 

This became apparent in 2015 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered a mine spill in Colorado that sent acid-laden mine waste into the Animas River. The cities of Aztec and Farmington shut the headgates from the river to their reservoirs to prevent the contaminated water from entering their drinking water systems. 

Added resilience to disasters like mine spills or wildfires can come through building out infrastructure like pipelines. Connecting water systems together and other regionalization efforts can also help add resiliency.

And it isn’t just disasters like mine spills or wildfires that threaten New Mexico’s water supplies. 

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney addressed water pollution in the state and provided some statistics that showed the challenges the state faces.

He said there are 14 superfund sites at various levels of remediation, 261 legacy uranium mining sites, more than 300 abandoned industrial sites and 944 underground, leaking hydrocarbon tanks at gas stations. 

Additionally, Kenney said New Mexico’s aquifers have been polluted with PFAS chemicals, jet fuel and, in the case of groundwater near Los Alamos National Laboratory, hexavalent chromium.

Conserving and recycling water

“The goal is to use less,” Lujan Grisham said. “Be smarter about industries who are using the bulk of the water so that we're protecting individuals and identify resources that we can move around the state.”

Lujan Grisham said industry needs to recycle water and the state also needs to look for conservation opportunities in wastewater.

The governor said that while the technology exists, her administration is not encouraging communities to go to different drinking water sources tomorrow.

“What we're gonna do is, we're going to make sure that we're not wasting water first,” she said.

That will help increase the amount of water available.

She said New Mexico will also look at infrastructure projects, including moving water from one area to another.

In terms of conservation of water, the governor said the plan calls for a public education campaign and also looks at plugging leaks in aging infrastructure.

Kenney said New Mexico is partnering with Google to look for leaks in water and wastewater systems.

“We're going to do that through Google with satellites and find those leaks on a 24-hour basis,” he said. 

Kenney said another step is smart water metering. This can allow people to better understand and monitor their personal water usage and can help utilities detect leaks and improve their resource management.

But these meters are not cheap. 

Kenney said there is $100 million in the state’s Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund. This money is available to communities at a low interest rate with up to 30-year terms.

Kenney said communities could apply for that funding to install smart water meters that would ensure 100 percent of the water a ratepayer is buying actually reaches that customer.

“There's technology, there's availability, it's here today, and we just have to continue to push those into communities as this 50-year water plan sort of becomes the architecture by which we're moving forward under,” he said.

Strategic water supply

One of the most controversial aspects of the water plan is the use of treated produced water, which is a byproduct of the oil and gas industry.

The governor announced in December the creation of a strategic water supply in which the state will purchase treated, produced or brackish water for use in industrial processes. 

“We aren’t looking for potable or drinkable water supplies,” Lujan Grisham said. “We’re trying to preserve those. We’re identifying water supplies that do other things.”

Infinity Water Solutions is one of the companies that currently cleans up produced water in Lea and Eddy counties. The water Infinity Water Solutions treats is then used to reduce the amount of freshwater the oil industry consumes. 

“There's a number of folks that have recognized that produced water in the state of New Mexico actually creates tremendous opportunity,” CEO Michael Dyson said. “Every barrel of water that we treat and put back into the oil and gas industry allows for one barrel of freshwater to stay where that freshwater actually needs to stay.”

Dyson said the strategic water supply underscores New Mexico’s commitment to the concept of reuse.

“Now what it does for us on the private sector side is to suggest that there's a level of confidence in this as a business opportunity,” he said.

The state’s role in acting as a buyer for water that will then be provided to industrial customers reduces the risk companies that are selected to treat the produced or brackish water have to take. Those companies will be tasked with building out the infrastructure such as treatment facilities.

Dyson said New Mexico’s role allows companies like Infinity Water Solutions to consider making significant investments into infrastructure and participating in the strategic water supply.

The state’s past actions are the reason that Infinity Water Solutions — a group of Texans, Dyson said — decided to invest in New Mexico to begin with, and that investment is not small. He said throughout 2024 the company intends to deploy no less than $75 million in the state.

The Produced Water Act of 2019 prompted Infinity Water Solutions to move into Eddy and Lea counties.

But the use of produced water outside of the oil fields concerns some environmental advocates. This is because produced water can contain a variety of contaminants, including frack fluid and radioactive elements.

Officials say the treated produced water is not intended to be used for drinking water or agricultural purposes. Instead, it is meant to replace the freshwater that is currently being used for industrial purposes.

That means saving the freshwater resources for agriculture and municipal purposes. 

Some of the elements within produced water can also be extracted and put to beneficial use. 

Lujan Grisham gave the example of lithium.

“I don’t know about everyone in New Mexico, but I’d rather take lithium right out of produced water than continue to have children in third-world countries mine it,” she said.

This idea of produced water containing elements like lithium or valuable salts is something that Infinity Water Solutions is also looking toward. Currently, the elements removed from the produced water when it is treated are sent to specialized disposal sites. Dyson said the company hopes to change that in the future with the goal of having zero waste.

NM Political Report is a non-profit news outlet based in New Mexico and can be found at nmpoliticalreport.com.

Water Action, Aquifer, Michelle Lujan Grisham