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Water rush: Deep aquifers sought for metro growth

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--It's been called a modern-day gold rush. But the free-for-all isn't for sparkling bits in a stream, it's for the water--deep underground and salty--that developers and politicians hope will help keep New Mexico's metro areas growing.

In Albuquerque and Santa Fe, developers and local governments have staked claims to more than 350,000 acre feet of brackish water in deep underground aquifers since 1997. But the vast bulk of those claims--amounting to roughly 325,000 acre feet--have been filed in the past year. One acre-foot equals 325,821 gallons, which can meet the annual water needs of two U.S. households.

In southern New Mexico, the city of Las Cruces and two companies in Otero County also have claimed 35,000 acre feet of water from deep aquifers in the past two months, according to the state engineer's office.

Brackish water in deep aquifers has little state oversight because of a loophole in state law that gives the state engineer jurisdiction of water above 2,500 feet unless it has a salt content of less than 1,000 parts per million.

"Basically, right now with the way the laws are, it's just a free-for-all," State Engineer John D'Antonio said.

D'Antonio is pushing for a change in state law this legislative session to give his office jurisdiction to salty water in deep aquifers.

His oversight would only affect deep aquifer water intended for residential purposes. To mute critics, he said oil and gas development, prospecting, mining, agriculture, electrical generation, industrial and geothermal uses are exempt.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she thinks it will pass this session because it has widespread bipartisan support.

As population and the cost of surface water rights grows and desalination costs drop, deep water aquifers are increasingly becoming part of the picture of water supply in the West.

"There's not a whole lot of new water supplies out there and desalination offers a tool to provide new water supply," said Mike Gabaldon, the Denver-based director of technical resources for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "It's got to be part of the toolkit. At this point, we don't know how big of a tool that's going to be."

The Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo is just getting set up to begin research on desalting water, Gabaldon said.

Randy Truby, a director and past president of the International Desalination Association, said research is needed on the most cost effective ways to dispose of the salty waste from inland desalination plants, new ways to desalt water and how to make current processes more efficient.

In the Albuquerque area, Sandoval County is furthest along in its plans to use water from a deep aquifer for homes in western Rio Rancho and a 3,300-acre industrial complex and a general aviation airport in the Rio Puerco Valley.

Preliminary testing has uncovered more than 4.3 million acre feet of drinkable water, or enough to meet the needs of a city of more than 300,000 people for at least a century, said Jack Thomas, a former Sandoval County commissioner who was elected to the Legislature in November.

Thomas supports giving the state engineer's office oversight of brackish water in deep aquifers.

"That's the only way to make sure that your investment will be protected. The way it is now, anyone can come out and punch a well," Thomas said. "We don't want the water trucked to Arizona or shipped to Texas."

Sandoval County spokesman Gayland Bryant said dropping prices for desalination are what encouraged the county to pursue its plans.

"If you go back a very short period of time, technology wasn't available then to even think about desalination today," Bryant said.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the cost of desalination has dropped from $2 to $1 per 1,000 gallons, though costs vary depending on the site, said Kevin Price, the Bureau of Reclamation's desalination research coordinator in Denver.

At the same time, water rights in the Middle Rio Grande Valley rose from $3,500 to $17,000 to $18,000 an acre foot from 2005 to 2007, said Bill Turner, a board member of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

More state oversight would have helped Atrisco Oil & Gas in Albuquerque protect its claim west of the city, which has been challenged by SunCal Companies of Irvine, Calif. Atrisco president and chief executive Peter Sanchez said.

"Right now our choice is to resolve amongst us or go to district court. If we had regulation of this area by the Office of the State Engineer, we'd have another venue to sort out this business," Sanchez said.

A SunCal spokesman said the two companies are talking with each other, and SunCal has retained a firm to evaluate the water resources in the area.

Not everyone is behind pumping water from deep water aquifers, whether the state engineer has jurisdiction or not.

Environmentalists and others say water in these aquifers is a finite resource and they envision rows of development west of Albuquerque with no local water source in two generations.

"Our biggest worry is so you have this so-called new water supply, so business as usual continues and the population continues to boom and you draw down that water by the end of the century, so you have all these people here and then what do you do?" said Michael Jensen, a spokesman for Amigos Bravos in Albuquerque. "Our concern is that people just aren't facing the reality of just living in a desert."

And, no one really knows what would happen if the deep water aquifers have their water pumped out of them, Jensen said.

"There's a lot of concern that drawing down the deep aquifers could have an impact on overlying water and on the river itself," he said.

Turner agrees. In the 1970s, studies were done in the San Juan basin on wells farther away from the Rio Grande than the Albuquerque area wells that showed such drilling would affect the river.

"Based upon the state engineer's past studies, that has already been studied prima facie that there will be depletion on the Rio Grande," Turner said.

The MRGCD board has passed a resolution that the U.S. Geological Survey and the state engineer study any impact drilling in the Albuquerque metro area would have on the river, Turner said.

Sanchez said he agrees it's not prudent to develop based on nonrenewable resources, but he thinks desalting deep water should be part of future planning for water resources.

"It blows my mind to think that somebody is actually, in a very absurd sort of way, saying let's not get more water," he said.

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