Measure on deep water wells gains momentum

By Staci Matlock:The New Mexican

Rep. Mimi Stewart’s bill to give the state engineer authority over brackish water in deep wells sailed through its second committee hearing Monday, winning unanimous approval.

The House Energy and Natural Resources Committee saw fit to add a clause calling the need for the legislation an “emergency” after six private companies filed notices of their intent to drill deep water wells in Santa Fe County, all on leased state trust land.

Those wells, with the potential of pumping out millions of gallons of water, do not need a permit from the state engineer under current state law.

The limited liability companies advertised legal notices in The New Mexican on Monday. Those notices indicated each of the companies plans to pump up to 15,000 acre-feet of water from any wells drilled on state land. (One acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons.) The companies are Monument Valley, San Juan Peaks, Harmony Wells, El Dorado Mines, Phoenix & Avriel and Grounded & Polite. Little information is available online about the companies from the state Public Regulation Commission other than the name of the registered agent, Albuquerque attorney Michelle Henrie, who filed lease applications on their behalf.

The State Land Office also did not immediately have further information about who owns the companies.

Currently, the state engineer doesn’t have permitting authority over aquifers containing potable or nonpotable water that start 2,500 feet below surface or deeper. Until recently, only oil and gas companies typically drilled that deep. But new technology makes it possible to remove the salts from brackish water, creating a potentially large source of drinking water for New Mexico.

Under Stewart’s House Bill 19 and amendments added earlier by the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, the state engineer can declare deep underground water basins. Those basins containing only brackish, nonpotable water would require a state permit from developers who wanted the water for municipal or subdivision uses. Oil and gas, mining, geothermal, road construction, energy production and agriculture uses would be exempted from the permitting requirements.

But if the deep aquifers contained potable and nonpotable water, then a state engineer permit would be needed for all uses under the bill.

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which oversees permitting of oil, gas and mining developments, agreed with the amended bill. In addition, the department said the state’s Water Quality Act should be expanded to cover water with higher concentrations of dissolved solids such as those found in deep aquifers.

The Association of Commerce and Industry opposes the bill, saying it could mean oil and gas operators would have to deal with two state agencies, leading to conflicts.

But not giving the state more control over deep aquifers could lead to greater damage. “These underground water basins, while potentially large, may have a finite supply of water that is not recharged,” said the Office of the State Engineer in comments to the Legislative Finance Committee. “There are potentially grave risks to public safety by allowing future population growth based upon a nonsustainable, limited supply of water.”

Companies that have already filed notices of intent to drill, such as those in Santa Fe County, won’t be impacted if the legislation passes.

A public forum on desalination and deep wells will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 21 at The University of New Mexico Continuing Education Center, 1634 University Blvd. NE in Albuquerque. According to the forum’s organizers, “reliance on nonrenewed water, disposal of the resultant brine and the additional (but perhaps ‘virtual’) uses of water to create the needed electricity to desalinate it are common concerns. Proponents and opponents of the use of this water will provide a variety of viewpoints.”