Sandoval County Oil & Gas Ordinance
Sandoval County commissioners heard hours of public testimony last month on a contentious proposal that would set parameters for energy development on 4,000 square miles of unincorporated lands bordering New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area and many Native American communities. Many residents expressed concerns that the proposed ordinance would fast-track more oil and gas development, threatening groundwater and agriculture, and bringing other negative impacts.
The All Indian Pueblo Council approved a resolution in opposition to the ordinance. Tribal leaders testified that they had not been consulted. Sandia Pueblo Lt. Gov. Lawrence Gutierrez said his tribe is concerned about groundwater quality and quantity in the mid-Río Grande area, and the fact that billions of gallons are already used annually by oil and gas production in New Mexico.
Geological maps show numerous seismic fault lines running to the Río Grande between Cochiti Pueblo and Santa Ana Mesa, and a large water basin below. In October, scientists announced that they have more evidence that wastewater injection from oil and gas production has increased earthquakes along fault lines on the Colorado-New Mexico border.
Industry spokesmen at the hearing maintained that, due to geology and modern technology, water contamination in Sandoval County should not be a concern. Along with the Sandoval Economic Alliance and students from New Mexico Tech, they touted the industry’s role in supporting the state’s economy and urged the commission to approve the ordinance as written. The county’s planning and zoning commission has hired New Mexico Tech to study oil and gas potential throughout the county. The $60,000 study is due in May 2018.
Sandoval County doesn’t currently have any rules governing the oil and gas industry. Commission Chairman Don Chapman said that fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has already been going on and that the ordinance would hold the industry more accountable. It would establish buffer zones banning drilling within 750 feet of homes, schools hospitals and fresh water supplies. Energy companies would be required to have at least a $5 million insurance policy. Environmental oversight and monitoring would be left up to state and federal authorities, superseding county authority.
The hearing concluded after the commission made amendments to the proposal, which will require discussion at a future meeting.
Water Challenges in the Southwest
According to the recently released Climate Change Special Report and the fourth volume of the National Climate Assessment, we are living in “the warmest [period] in the history of modern civilization.” The report consists of research and analysis by 13 federal agencies. It states that human activities—such as the burning of fossil fuels—are the dominant cause of this warming and that “there is no convincing alternative explanation.”
Warming in the Southwest is occurring at about double the global rate, resulting in earlier spring snowmelt, reduced snowpack and drought-stricken areas. With rising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, warming is expected to accelerate in New Mexico, which is noticeably warmer than a generation ago. Some predict that the state could be four to six degrees warmer by the end of the century, making Albuquerque more like El Paso is now.
Groundwater levels have been dropping at an alarming rate across the western United States. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has launched groundwater basin studies in Arizona and New Mexico to evaluate imbalances between supply and demand. The Río Grande Basin Study is focused on the Middle Río Grande from the Colorado-New Mexico border to Elephant Butte Reservoir.
As soils dry, reservoir levels will be lower and groundwater recharge will not be as efficient, despite expected wet decades. Agricultural wells have to be drilled much deeper. In New Mexico, domestic wells are reportedly going dry across the Sandía Basin, a 400-square-mile area crossing four counties. Many wells have also dried out in the Estancia Basin in Torrance County, and near Portales and Clovis.
The Ogallala aquifer has been dropping for decades due to over-pumping. Parts of eastern New Mexico are facing a crisis as the Ogallala is depleted. Two oil and gas producers are suing the State Land Commissioner over a policy that limits the use of underground water for drilling.
New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission Hearing
A four-day hearing before the state Water Quality Control Commission on water quality standards was held at the New Mexico Capitol last month. Dozens of attorneys representing the mining and dairy industries, the military, Laun-dry Supply Co. and the consortium that operates Los Alamos National Laboratory debated proposed changes to allowable contamination levels with an attorney from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, representing advocacy groups Amigos Bravos and the Gila River Information Project. A representative from the Pueblo of Pojoaque expressed that pueblo’s concerns.
The New Mexico Environment Department says changes to surface and groundwater regulations would more closely align the state with federal standards. Some of the new policies could eliminate public notification and hearings when a company seeks an exemption and limit oversight of polluters. The state does not currently have a system in place to assess companies’ compliance reports.
A hearing officer will issue an opinion this month and the commission will issue a decision in March or April.
Texas-New Mexico Water Battle
The New Mexico-Texas water battle is to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 8. Texas is asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the states’ border so that water from the aquifer that would otherwise drain into the Río Grande and flow to El Paso won’t be depleted. If Texas wins, New Mexico could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages. Farmers, municipalities and commercial water users in New Mexico have been meeting to discuss managing the aquifer in new ways and to attempt to craft a settlement.
Taos County Appeals Water Transfer
Taos County has appealed the State Engineer’s ruling that up to 1,717 acre-feet per year of water can be transferred 85 miles downstream to Santa Fe County as part of a multimillion dollar regional water system to be built as a result of the “final decree” that was issued in the Aamodt water adjudication settlement. An attorney representing hundreds of non-Indian water users in northern Santa Fe County is also appealing the settlement of the 51-year-old case.
New Mexico Ranchers Win Water Ruling
Bolstering a claim that state law allows for the protection of water rights—some dating back hundreds of years to Spanish colonization—last month a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge sided with a New Mexico ranching family in a decades-old feud with the U.S. Forest Service. The outcome could impact ranchers and rural communities that have complained about federal land managers overstepping property and water rights, despite policies that recognize traditional and cultural ties to the land.
Over the years, the Goss family was forced to decrease its herd as Lincoln National Forest officials fenced off areas to protect habitats and endangered species. The family, which has been working with the Forest Service in recent years to find alternative sources of water, claimed that the federal government violated its constitutional rights by not providing just compensation. A final judgment is pending.
Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project
The U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a $62 million contract to a Texas company for construction of 300 miles of water pipeline in northwest New Mexico, including a 28-mile section between Naschitti and Twin Lakes. The project, which includes two water treatment plants, 19 pumping stations and several storage tanks, is intended to create a sustainable water supply for the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache communities. Construction is scheduled to start in January and is expected to take more than two years to complete.