March 10, 2023

Brackish water bill heads to Senate floor

A bill that would instruct the New Mexico Environment Department to develop rules for using brackish water passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote on Thursday and now heads to the Senate floor.

Should SB 493 become law, it would require the environment department to determine the appropriate levels of minerals that can be in brackish water that is used for water projects in the lower Rio Grande, middle Rio Grande, Permian Basin and northwest New Mexico.

Brackish water in New Mexico is saline water generally found in underground aquifers. 

The bill is sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.

Muñoz said the state has “so much brackish water under New Mexico” and limited freshwater supplies.

He said this is going to be a drought year and referenced challenges on the Colorado River. The seven states that rely on the Colorado River are looking at ways to cut use as two major reservoirs have dropped to historic low levels. 

“Now we need to begin determining how we’re going to use brackish water, what the mineral content is, what it’s going to take to…use it in another process or an industry,” he said.

John Roderick with NMED’s Water Protection Division said that desalination of brackish water is something that has occurred in various parts of the country “for quite a while.”

“The reality is, though, that what works some place else is going to fit somewhat differently based on our conditions,” he said.

He said the study should look at both brackish water locations and quantities. He said if a desalination plant is built, it needs to be something that will be available long term.

“You wouldn’t want to tap a brackish water source that is only going to be there for a few years,” he said.

Additionally, Roderick said not all water is the same and that there are various radioactive elements that occur in groundwater.

“Brackish water is an untapped resource that we would be remiss in not studying,” he said.

Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said there is a facility in Alamogordo that has been studying brackish water for nearly 20 years.

He was referencing the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility that opened in 2007.

“There’s a huge amount of research that’s already on the books about this,” he said.

He said the research that is being done at the facility should be used and said that “there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.”

Woods said that it is important to look at using brackish water because the state has limited freshwater availability.

Amendments made in the Senate Finance Committee changed the wording to use instead of reuse and removed language referencing aquifer recharge, instead changing that to aquifer characterization projects. 

Camilla Feibelman with the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club said that the bill is too broadly written and needs more specificity about brackish water treatment and use.

“The term brackish water needs to be very clearly defined,” she said.

She said that contaminants could include naturally occurring radioactive materials or things like PFAS that humans may have introduced to the groundwater.

Feibelman said produced water from oil and gas should be excluded from the legislation.

Sister Joan Brown, the director of Interfaith Power and Light, said her organization is concerned that the bill is not clear in the definition of brackish water.

She said there are growing concerns about PFAS and other carcinogens that may be in the water.

“We really need to be working on conservation of water,” Brown said. “If we were really working on conservation and had adequate oversight of water use, especially for some of the large industries including oil and gas that use tremendous amounts of water, we wouldn’t have such a need to use the brackish water, whatever that may be.”