December 13, 2016

Commission approves water plans amid backdrop of falling water supply

Laura Paskus

Oil pumps in southeastern New Mexico

At Monday’s meeting of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), directors voted to accept two of the state’s regional water plans, one for Lea County and another for the Lower Pecos Valley.

The plans are part of a legislatively-mandated regional water planning effort, which at some point is supposed to be rolled into an updated water plan for the entire state.

The process dates back to the 1980s. Over the past few years, ISC staff, consultants and local stakeholders have updated plans for each of the state’s 16 water districts. All regional water plan must be accepted by the Interstate Stream Commission, a public body made up of governor appointees.

Each plan includes data on water supplies and demands, economic factors and population projections. They also include ideas from local stakeholders on how to meet water needs over the next 40 years.

Like most of New Mexico, Lea County and the Lower Pecos Valley are both facing future water shortages.

The Lower Pecos Valley regional water planning area—which includes parts of DeBaca, Lincoln, Chavez, Otero and Eddy counties—uses about 597,000 acre feet of water each year, 70 percent of which is pumped from belowground.

One acre foot equals 325,851 gallons.

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Planners estimate that the region could experience serious water shortages during future droughts. The projected shortfall between supply and demand is between 94,000 and 166,000 acre feet a year.

The Lower Pecos Valley could close that gap if the oil and gas industry re-used its wastewater instead of pumping clean water from the aquifer, said Woods Houghton, a member of the region’s steering committee and the Eddy County Agricultural Extension Agent for New Mexico State University.

Right now, he said, the practice is only lucrative for big oil and gas producers. Making wastewater reuse affordable for smaller oil and gas companies would require policy changes, Houghton said, which would most likely have to come from the New Mexico Environment Department.

Houghton also expressed concerns over the transfer of water rights from farms to the oil and gas industry.

Demand for water rises when oil prices are high. For many farmers, this means their water becomes more valuable than their crops.

Houghton pinned part of the problem on the state’s Water Use Leasing Act.

A provision within that state law allows for “temporary emergency transfers.” That is, someone can transfer—or sell—the water they’re legally allowed to pump to someone else if an emergency or if a delay in the state’s normal permitting process would cause “serious economic loss.”

Those temporary permits, he said, make it easier for farms to transfer water to drilling companies. In some cases, he said, water gets moved 20 or 30 miles away—and maybe even across state lines.

Deep problems

Because Lea County lacks permanent streams or lakes, more than 99 percent of the water used comes from underground sources, including the High Plains aquifer. Water levels in that aquifer have been dropping for decades.

Meanwhile, Lea County has more than 19,000 active oil wells.

According to Tim Woomer, Utilities Director for the City of Hobbs, the temporary permits are being widely used—and perhaps abused—which allows farmers and oil and gas operators to bypass the normal rules that require public advertising and proof that the transfers won’t affect other people’s water rights.

Presenters from both regions also said users in Texas may be siphoning water that should belong to New Mexico. The High Plains Aquifer lies beneath eight states, many of which have different regulatory structures related to groundwater.

In New Mexico, for example, water is a public resource. Users require a permit from the Office of the State Engineer. In neighboring Texas, however, groundwater is tied to property rights, which means landowners can legally pump as much water as they want.

At the meeting, the Interstate Stream Commission voted to accept both regional water plans. But New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine chided both presenters. As the state’s top water official, Blaine also serves as secretary of the commission.

“I really feel like the Office of the State Engineer got banged up today,” said Blaine. He argued that the temporary leasing process doesn’t bypass any rules and is still subject to protest.

Blaine also expressed frustration that only one local solution was mentioned at the meeting. He was referring to Lea County presenters advocating for using economic incentives to bring low-water use businesses to the area.

The state is strapped for cash, Blaine pointed out, and can’t fund everything planners of water regions might like to see happen.

Blaine used state funding for studying groundwater levels as an example, explaining that the practice will be “affected dramatically” by the upcoming state budget.

New Mexico is facing a projected deficit of nearly $69 million for the current fiscal year. Because of this, state agencies are expected to experience additional budget cuts after the state legislative session convenes next month.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, the United States Geological Service (USGS) has already cut back much of its monitoring work, he said.

Blaine did agree there are issues between New Mexico and Texas.

“We do have to have some kind of communication with Texas about how to handle water management on a regional basis,” he said. “We have started those conversations with the Texas Water Development Board.”

He also said drought is a concern.

“As we move into drier and drier conditions, the issue of water does become more and more significant,” Blaine said. “These two districts are neighbors, and so they can’t go to their neighbor to solve the deficit, the gap. So it’s important to realize that in order to have an effective water plan, we’re going to have to take it to the next step.”

Blaine said he and Deborah Dixon, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, would talk about developing a state water plan.

“The themes from district to district will help guide us in developing the state water plan itself,” he said. “These are not simple issues.”