Fourteen years after Congress authorized New Mexico to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona—and four years after a state commission voted to build a diversion on the Gila River—there’s little to show for the project, other than continued confusion and about $17 million in spent money. “The process is going to end at some point,” said Norman Gaume, an opponent of the project and a former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). “It’s a question of how much more money will they waste?”
At an ISC meeting on Thursday, the state approved an additional $110,000 for the engineering firm Stantec, as well as an amendment that would allow the quasi-governmental organization in charge of the project to someday spend money slated for the diversion on other water projects. But, noted Gaume, each of the 15 members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity will need their governing boards to approve it, too. In practical terms, he said, the change means little: the joint powers agreement says the state can only spend money on the diversion.
Shortly after Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected governor, she started assembling her transition teams for various state agencies. In November, Lujan Grisham announced that Sarah Cottrell Propst and Toby Velasquez will head the Natural Resources Committee, which reviews the agencies that oversee water, energy and environment issues. Velasquez is deputy director of New Mexico State Parks. Cottrell Propst is executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance and served as the energy and environmental policy advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson from 2006 to 2010. Over the weekend, Lujan Grisham announced transition teams for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department; the Environment Department; the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission.
The state of New Mexico says the U.S. Air Force needs to immediately develop a plan to protect dairies from chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base. The New Mexico Environment Department announced today that Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis is violating the state’s Water Quality Act and related ground and surface water regulations. The state agency issued a Notice of Violation, which requires the Air Force to create a plan to protect local dairies from contamination in the short-term and also evaluate the possibility of installing systems to treat contaminated water supplies. If the military fails to comply, New Mexico can issue civil penalties of up to $15,000 per day for each violation. Chemicals from fire fighting training activities have been found in the groundwater below Cannon, and in groundwater wells off-base.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New Mexico released a draft report on Friday about the possibility of someday reusing or recycling wastewater from the oil and gas industry. According to the draft white paper compiled by the EPA and three state agencies, “Given that drought is no stranger to New Mexico, decisions about water are growing ever more complicated and meaningful.”
This summer, the EPA and three New Mexico agencies convened a working group to understand and clarify existing regulatory and permitting frameworks and create a road map toward finding other uses for wastewater generated by oil and gas drilling. The draft report lays out various possible reuse scenarios, explains which agencies would be involved in permitting and regulations and parses some of the legal issues. As the authors note, New Mexico became the third-largest oil producing state in the U.S. in 2018 and the industry produces enormous quantities of wastewater. According to the report:
For every barrel of oil, four or five barrels of produced water may be generated: an estimated 168 to 210 gallons of produced water for every 42 gallons of oil produced.
On the downstream side of Elephant Butte Dam, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation employees navigate a stairwell above the Rio Grande, passing scat from the ring-tailed cats that like to hang out here, and enter through a door into the 300-foot tall concrete dam. Built in the early twentieth century, Elephant Butte Dam holds back water stored for farmers in southern New Mexico, the state of Texas and Mexico. At full capacity, the reservoir is about 40 miles long and can retain more than 2,000,000 acre feet of water. Jesse Higgins, an electrician who manages the powerplant at the dam, goes first and flips on the lights, which flicker and fire up after a few minutes. Labyrinthine tunnels burrow throughout, and water drains along the sides of the narrow, elevated path.
Wednesday night, New Mexico’s largest water utility agreed to sell water to the federal government to boost flows in the Rio Grande through the end of the year. Under the one-time lease, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will pay the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority $2 million for 20,000 acre feet of water stored in Abiquiu Reservoir. The water will be used to keep the river flowing from below Cochiti Dam, through Albuquerque and downstream of the Isleta Diversion Dam. During the meeting, John Stomp, chief operating officer of the water authority, assured board members it has that water to spare. “The reason we’re able to do this is we have managed our supplies really well in the past,” Stomp said.
Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance. The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state. The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.
For almost a year, drought conditions have gripped New Mexico, dropping lake levels and drying out riverbeds and rangelands alike. Even this summer’s monsoon rains haven’t been enough to alleviate drought conditions or bump up reservoir levels. And while El Niño conditions brew in the Pacific—foretelling wetter conditions for the Southwest later this year—right now, the state’s water situation is dire. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is now notifying farmers that the water it had stored is almost depleted, months before irrigation season’s typical end around Halloween. They can’t predict exactly when the water they have stored in El Vado Lake, on the Chama River in northern New Mexico, will run out.
Irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande will be watching the skies for rain even more closely now. At its board meeting this week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it could soon enter what are called “P&P Operations”—when it can only meet the irrigation needs of about 8,800 acres of pueblo lands, which have the most senior water rights in the valley. The irrigation district had just under 21,000 acre feet of water in upstream storage as of Aug. 9 and estimated that water will be gone within two weeks. Once that stored water is “exhausted,” deliveries to other irrigators will cease until conditions change.
When drilling wells, operators inject chemicals, sand and water underground to create fissures that help move oil and natural gas to the wellhead more efficiently. That practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a lot of water. And it leaves behind a lot of water, too. In 2015, even before the Permian Basin really started booming, industry produced 900 million barrels of wastewater. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—or almost all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir.