NM looks to brackish and produced water amid climate change

This water will not be used as a drinking water source but can be used in other sectors and may reduce demand for freshwater. That will allow more of the freshwater to be used to support communities, including as drinking water.

NM looks to brackish and produced water amid climate change

It’s no secret that wells in parts of New Mexico are running dry and communities that rely on surface water from rivers have watched those waterways dwindle to a mere trickle.

State leaders are now turning toward the vast reserves of brackish water and produced water—a byproduct of oil and gas production—in hopes that the arid state can continue to grow and thrive even as climate change ushers in an era of aridification.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday the creation of a strategic water supply that will be built by purchasing cleaned-up brackish or produced water.

This water will not be used as a drinking water source but can be used in other sectors and may reduce demand for freshwater. That will allow more of the freshwater to be used to support communities, including as drinking water.

The governor’s announcement came at the start of a panel discussion about partnerships with business during the COP 28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai.

“You might have heard that New Mexico, right in the southwestern part of the western United States, is challenged by water,” Lujan Grisham said as she announced the strategic water reserve. “And frankly many countries and localities are equally challenged.”

She said that climate change is making it harder to recharge stressed aquifers and said that New Mexico is anticipated to see a 25 percent reduction in available water. At the same time, Lujan Grisham said the state desires to grow responsibly. 

Building this strategic water supply provides opportunities for businesses. Lujan Grisham said the state will invest $500 million to purchase this cleaned-up water and she said that it will be technology-neutral.

During a press conference, Lujan Grisham said this funding will come through severance tax bonds and that she will ask the legislature to fund $250 million for the project this upcoming 30-day session and the remaining $250 million in the 60-day session in 2025.

“We want unequivocally to make sure that we’re identifying some of the waste from the fossil fuel industry and some of the brackish water assets that we have and basically turn it into a commodity so that we are protecting the freshwater for New Mexicans for generations to come,” Lujan Grisham said. 

She pointed to areas like hydrogen and chip manufacturing as sectors that might be able to utilize the cleaned-up produced or brackish water.

Related: Governor says rural NM communities will not be left behind in the energy transition

In her remarks in Dubai, Lujan Grisham said that in a state with little water to spare, continued economic growth will require a strategic water supply. At the same time, she said government policies and regulations can “create or chill any kind of innovation.”

The announcement follows years of efforts laying the groundwork for such an initiative. In 2019, Lujan Grisham signed the Produced Water Act that paved the way for using wastewater from oil and gas for a variety of purposes. Produced water is often injected into the ground, which can lead to earthquakes. The use of produced water outside of the oilfields has been controversial with many environmental groups saying that it could place fresh water supplies and communities at risk. 

Related: Groups critical of OCD’s ‘bare bones’ proposed rule for produced water

The New Mexico Environment Department is also currently working on water reuse standards. Secretary James Kenney said the comment period on a draft rule closed at the end of November and NMED is now petitioning the Water Quality Control Commission to enact rules.

Kenney said New Mexico will have “both a carrot and stick approach” to brackish and produced water that will allow the state to “continue to move the economic needle while preserving our freshwater reserves.”

Companies that participate in the initiative will need to go through rigorous environmental permitting, Lujan Grisham said. She said that will ensure the water is clean enough to be used safely and that “we aren’t creating any other problems by just saying ‘look, here’s money’ to the private sector.”

While the standards needed are not all in place today, Kenney said they will be in place in 2024.

Furthermore, he highlighted that the state has worked with the New Mexico Produced Water Consortium, which is based out of New Mexico State University. NMED and NMSU entered into a memorandum of understanding in 2019 that created the consortium. 

Lujan Grisham emphasized the importance of the partnership with NMSU. She said that using independent academic institutions allows the state to ensure that it is “exceeding to every degree possible whatever the standards ought to be.” Additionally, she said including scientific research provides New Mexicans security in the decisions the government makes.

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