Water conservation extends beyond drought
A report recently published in The Albuquerque Journal revealed that nearly 99 percent of New Mexico is in extreme, severe or moderate drought. Long before the report was issued, we at the State Land Office have been acting with great urgency to protect New Mexico water and I have implemented long-term water conservation initiatives.
The volumes of water the oil and gas industry use is prolific. Of the 13 million acres of mineral estate managed by the State Land Office, three million acres are leased for oil and gas development. Oil and gas activity on state trust lands generates 92 percent of the agency’s annual revenues, most of which supplements the operating budgets of public schools, therefore the industry’s investment in New Mexico is critical to our mission. However, while revenues are soaring, we are taking action to ensure the state has adequate fresh water supplies.
The Ogallala aquifer is a vast underground reservoir beneath the Great Plains with portions in eight states, including Southeastern New Mexico, and is one of the country’s largest and most important sources of drinking water. The oil and gas industry has used Ogallala water for production and related activity for decades and I have made efforts to curtail usage of water from the aquifer.
Under my direction, the State Land Office adopted a policy to review hydrologic reports before approving new, or renewing, land access applications to drill water wells on trust lands that involve the use of water from the Ogallala. Based on recommendations made by our water resources team, I determine whether granting land access for a water well is in the best interest of the State Land Office and whether an easement should require the grantee to draw water from deeper, non-potable sources.
We also have worked to protect the Black, Delaware, and lower Pecos rivers, habitat of the endangered Texas hornshell mussel and four other aquatic species. I have encouraged oil and gas and agricultural lessees to voluntarily enroll their leased acreage into the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, which provides incentives to implement water conservation practices.
Some conservation measures include avoiding drilling activities in certain areas; reducing sediment through erosion mitigation; avoiding low water crossings; and implementing habitat restoration programs.
In conjunction with that effort, I have asked state engineer Tom Blaine to consider these issues when granting ground water permits and surface water diversions that could very well cause the Black River to run dry. I’ve also asked that given the persistence of drought and the strong connection between surface water and groundwater in the southeast, he consider closing the Carlsbad underground water basin to new appropriations.
Oil and gas producers operating in the Permian Basin recognize the value of conserving fresh drinking water and are exploring innovative ways to use alternative water sources for operations. The use of non-potable and recycled water are the new normal. The Permian Basin has a 50-year supply of oil and we need to ensure that we have a 50-year supply of fresh water.
Watersheds sustain life and are essential to a healthy ecosystem and to communities that depend on them for drinking water. Storm water runoff within a watershed drains to other bodies of water and impacts water quality and quantity. I established a dedicated funding mechanism to restore watersheds on trust lands. As of Feb. 28, the State Trust Lands Restoration and Remediation Fund has accrued nearly $1.3 million which is entirely earmarked for watershed stabilization projects.
Despite my efforts to conserve water, some of my policies have been met with criticism by some legislators and special interest groups. Water should not be politicized. Conservation is common sense and should take precedence over profiteering.
Aubrey Dunn is the state land commissioner. He is running for U.S. Senate as a member of the Libertarian Party.