Effective July 1, 2017, the State Land Office, without first reviewing hydrologic information, will not approve new, or renew, land access to drill water wells on State Trust Lands that involve the use of fresh water from the Ogallala aquifer for oil and gas production and related activities.
The announcement follows Commissioner Aubrey Dunn’s adoption of a policy in January of this year seeking to protect fresh water under State Trust Lands.
In June of 2016, Dunn was sued on account of his efforts to require existing easement holders to drill their wells into deeper, non-potable sources where the water is to be sold for use in oil and gas production. An easement holder represented by attorney and Speaker of the House Brian Egolf sought and obtained a preliminary court injunction preventing the commissioner from imposing such a condition after the easement had been issued. That matter is still pending.
Under the new policy, individuals are not prohibited from applying for an easement that might involve the use of fresh water for oil and gas production, although additional documentation and hydrologic information are now required with all applications. After careful examination, Dunn will determine whether granting land access for a water well is in the best interests of the State Land Office and whether an easement should require the grantee to draw water from deeper, non-potable sources.
Currently, there are more than 100 State Land Office-issued well site easements, many dating back to the 1980s, authorizing the easement holder to drill water wells on State Trust Lands in locations where water is being drawn from the Ogallala aquifer.
“We are in crisis mode,” said Dunn. “The rapid rate of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer and lack of alternative sources of fresh water is not only threatening drinking water within the Great Plains, but it is also devaluing State Trust Lands and negatively impacting Trust beneficiaries. Conversely, non-fresh water sources are available that can be used in oil and gas production.”
The Ogallala aquifer is a shallow water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains with portions in eight states, including eastern New Mexico, and provides nearly all the fresh water for residential, industrial, and agricultural use.
The aquifer is being both depleted and polluted and little of it is replaced by recharge from rainwater and snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. At the current rate of water use, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades. Some sources say, once pumped dry, the aquifer could take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall.
As an alternative, Dunn is suggesting industry drill into the Capitan Reef water aquifer for access to non-potable water. Due to its composition, that aquifer provides water that is highly mineralized, contains large quantities of saline, and is more suitable for oil and gas production.