The Office of the State Engineer awarded the state’s first water rights permit to keep water in a river. The office granted the permit to Audubon New Mexico for a stretch of the Gallina River near Abiquiu. Riparian areas, including rivers, streams and wetlands, account for just 1 percent of the New Mexico landscape, and have been stressed by decades of drought and a warming climate. A recent World Resources Institute study ranked New Mexico as the most water-stressed area in the United States. Surface water rights in the state are typically granted to individuals for diverting water from streams and rivers to irrigate crops and support food production.
State Engineer John D’Antonio’s ties to a desalination industry group has some environmentalists concerned about how the state is promulgating new rules to handle produced water. D’Antonio, who was appointed to the position of state engineer by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year, is listed as a director of the New Mexico Desalination Association, a 501(c)6 nonprofit “business league.” The barebones website doesn’t list its members or board of directors, but the nonprofit’s filings with the Secretary of State office indicates John D’Antonio sits on the board of directors. RELATED: As NM’s water boss, D’Antonio is back on the job
The nonprofit hosted a controversial produced water conference in Santa Fe last year, with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute and New Mexico Tech’s Petroleum Recovery Research Center. The conference drew protests from environmentalists concerned about how the wastewater from oil and gas production may be used in the future.
The state is currently gathering public and stakeholder input before developing policy and regulation around potentially using fracking wastewater, also called produced water, for use outside the oil and gas sector. Environmental groups are concerned that the process is being driven by industry interests, and could result in unsafe water being introduced to the state’s water resources.
RELATED: More questions than answers on how to reuse produced water
Given those concerns, D’Antonio’s current roles as both state engineer and board member to the association is problematic, said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner for WildEarth Guardians.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tapped John D’Antonio on Tuesday to serve as state engineer, appointing a water policy veteran to manage what is one of the most valuable and fought-over resources in New Mexico. D’Antonio was state engineer from 2003-11 and most recently worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He takes over his old post amid a high-stakes court case over the Rio Grande and as New Mexico faces the effects of climate change. “Our most precious resource has to be protected and managed in altogether new ways,” Lujan Grisham told reporters in announcing her pick. It is a big job, particularly for a governor who has already sought to make climate change a priority during her first months in office.
The search for a new state engineer has been ongoing since the transition team convened in December, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has yet to say who will carry out her policy as the state’s top water boss. But Lujan Grisham’s Communications Director Tripp Stelnicki said Friday a candidate is in place and an announcement, forthcoming. “I would say that if it’s not the toughest, it’s absolutely one of the toughest positions across state government to fill simply because of the expertise needed and the level of nuance,” Stelnicki said. Candidates must be registered professional engineers and also have “an understanding of these deeply-entrenched issues that go back decades, centuries—that are even older than the state,” Stelnicki said. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) administers New Mexico’s water resources, overseeing both surface and groundwater rights.
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.
As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study. This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA. Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.
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.
When Carol Pittman heard that New Mexico’s top water official denied a company’s application to pump groundwater from below the valley where she lives, she was thrilled. “What could be better?” she said. “That project would have just destroyed the place.”
For 11 years, Pittman and her neighbors fought plans by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to pump 54,000 acre feet of water each year from the aquifer below the Valley of San Agustin.* That wide, dramatic valley lies west of the Rio Grande Valley and is flanked by volcanic fields and mountains. Most of the valley is in Catron County, whose total population tops out at about 3,500 people. For more than 20 years, Pittman and her husband have lived near the community of Datil, on land that borders the Augustin Plains Ranch.
The tony neighborhoods tucked into the juniper-dotted grasslands on the east side of the Sandia Mountains represent yet another battleground in New Mexico’s water wars, one in which the state’s top water official has abandoned one side for the other. Last week, testimony ended in a trial over whether a private company can pump more water—114 million gallons more each year—from the Sandia Basin. Nancy Benson and her husband live in San Pedro Creek Estates, where they built their retirement home in 2000 after living in Albuquerque. She is shocked the state would consider granting the application after rejecting it previously. “This area is fully appropriated, there is nothing extra,” she said.
As severe drought returns to New Mexico, farmers and skiers alike fret over the state’s lack of snow. Meanwhile, on a cold, cloudy Monday morning in Washington, D.C., attorneys for New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and the United States government grappled over the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. In its U.S. Supreme Court case against New Mexico and Colorado, the State of Texas says that by letting farmers in southern New Mexico pump from wells near the Rio Grande, our state has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. The water fight has some New Mexicans gnawing their nails—and not just southern farmers whose water rights could be cut if Texas prevails. See all of NM Political Report’s stories on Texas v. New Mexico to date. Monday’s oral arguments before the court, over whether the feds can intervene under the Rio Grande Compact, drew a large crowd from the Land of Enchantment.