Searching for solutions: In New Mexico, researchers seek to make brackish water a viable supply

Water sources once considered unusable are getting increasing attention from government officials desperate to fulfill current and future demands.

An experiment conducted by the University of North Texas and New Mexico State University tests different types of brackish and treated water on fava bean plants at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The device affixed to the pole in the center collects data from sensors used in the experiment. (Liam DeBonis for NM Political Report)

Heading through eastern New Mexico, dairy cattle can be seen in farms beside the highway while flashing lights illuminate the wind farms at night. Large sprinklers irrigate the crop circles where, in the spring, the endangered lesser prairie chickens may venture out of the brush onto the fields to dance while keeping a close eye on the sky for the hawks that hunt overhead. 

Farther south, oil wells become more common than windmills. 

Beneath all of this lies a giant underground lake that gives life to the region and has allowed it to become one of the top crop producing areas of the state and the fifth leading cheese producing region in the country. But that aquifer—the Ogallala—is quickly being depleted. 

Faced with their depleting wells, farmers in eastern New Mexico are increasingly turning to dryland farming methods.

“Farming with limited irrigation is a challenge, and it is a greater challenge to produce crops in a strict dryland situation,” John D’Antonio said. “However, half of the eastern New Mexico farms have already been turned into dryland production.”

D’Antonio is a former New Mexico state engineer and now runs the company American West Water Advisors, which has a contract with the Lea County Soil and Water Conservation District to investigate the use of brackish – or salty – water to supplement dwindling supplies in the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies six New Mexico counties as well as portions of seven other states including Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas and Wyoming.

“The Ogallala Aquifer in New Mexico is the most economically important groundwater source in eastern New Mexico and is the primary driver for crop production in the High Plains region,” he told NM Political Report. 

D’Antonio’s team has repurposed abandoned oil and gas wells in the heavily drilled Permian Basin to access naturally-occuring brackish water aquifers. Those aquifers tend to be deeper than the freshwater sources. To reach the brackish supplies, D’Antonio is using repurposed oil wells that can reach far deeper than even the deepest irrigation water wells.

D’Antonio said the six New Mexico counties overlying the Ogallala Aquifer provide a third of all the agricultural cash receipts in the state, including more than a quarter of the crop cash receipts. That makes it a valuable part of the state’s economy that could be jeopardized by the declining availability of water.

“The Ogallala Aquifer is heavily pumped for irrigation of various agricultural crops that support farming and livestock industries, which, in turn, sustain the many small- to medium-sized cities dotted throughout eastern New Mexico,” D’Antonio said.

Some of the crops grown there include corn, sorghum, wheat, triticale and alfalfa.

But, for decades, water levels in the New Mexico portion of the Ogallala have experienced what D’Antonio described as “long-term, serious decline.”

According to an Ogallala Summit white paper from March 2024, researchers sampled 121 wells in New Mexico’s Curry and Roosevelt counties from 2004 to 2007 and then again from 2010 to 2015. The samples indicated an estimated loss of about 2 million acre-feet of water in the aquifer and the average loss was about 277,586 acre-feet per year. About 75% of those 121 wells in the two  counties experienced declining water levels.

“Well capacities are increasingly becoming less capable of supplying enough water to grow high water demand crops such as corn,” the white paper states.

Filtration and reverse osmosis systems are among the tools available for research inside the main bay of the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Liam DeBonis for NM Political Report)

To make matters more complicated, there are very few sources of surface water in eastern New Mexico to supplement the dwindling groundwater.

And it isn’t just the Ogallala Aquifer that is in decline. As water supplies become more strained—not just in the eastern part of the state, but throughout New Mexico—supplies that were previously considered unusable are getting increasing attention from government officials desperate to fulfill current demands, and spur future economic development. 

D’Antonio’s team is not the only group studying the use of brackish water in New Mexico. Pilot projects have been in the works since at least 2007 when the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility was established in Alamogordo to provide a place for research. But now that work has a new sense of urgency. 

With water being one of the major limiting factors to future economic growth, New Mexico officials are looking to the vast, but largely untapped and unstudied, brackish aquifers.

This is part of what is known as the strategic water supply, a proposal that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in November 2023. 

New Mexico’s strategic water supply

Sydney Lienemann, Deputy Secretary of Administration for New Mexico’s Environment Department, said that one of the pillars of the 50-year water plan that Lujan Grisham unveiled in January is providing approximately 150,000 acre-feet of new water to New Mexico per year.

To do so, New Mexico is looking at treated brackish water as well as treated produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas production.

Lienemann said one policy lever New Mexico has to accomplish the goal is by using what she described as commitments from industries seeking to buy water to incentivize development of previously unused water sources, such as brackish water. Essentially, the state will have contracts with companies that need water and that will provide a guaranteed customer for the companies treating the water.

“The administration’s proposal for (the strategic water supply) is not to fund the infrastructure itself or to finance the construction of these produced water or brackish water treatment plants, but rather to provide a guaranteed purchaser of the water at the end of treatment as a way to de-risk the upfront capital investment that treatment companies would need to take on,” she said.

Lienemann compared this arrangement to governments promising to purchase vaccines if companies will do the research and build the companies to manufacture the vaccines.

State funds will only be available to purchase the treated water if it meets predefined water quality standards that will be determined based on the end use.

Lienemann said New Mexico does not want to “stay in the business of owning that water.” Instead, the state plans to sell the treated water to identified end users who are currently unknown, similar to how a water wholesaler would act. She said having access to the treated water will allow New Mexico to recruit the end users. Under the current proposal, those end users would likely be hydrogen power generators or manufacturers of renewable energy technology.

“We want to reduce the pressure on our potable water, and this is one way to do it, while supporting the administration’s priorities to help with the clean energy transition,” Lienemann said. “So that is, are there ways that we can desalinate brackish water to do manufacturing of solar cells? Are there ways that we can treat produced water in a closed loop manner to generate hydrogen for energy storage?”

But the use of state funds for the strategic water supply requires legislative approval, which the governor has not yet secured. Lujan Grisham proposed using $500 million to fund the strategic water supply.

A University of Texas El Paso experiment uses brackish water to cool solar panels at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in an effort to increase their efficiency. The returning water, which is fed through red piping, is heated in the process, which makes it easier to treat. (Liam DeBonis for NM Political Report)

Funding and the state legislature

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, is the chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the vice chair of the interim Legislative Finance Committee. Small is one of the legislators who supports using brackish water to augment the dwindling freshwater supplies.

He emphasized the importance of work to “enhance protections” for the existing supplies of freshwater.

“We have to be ready to use our budget to safeguard what we have,” he said.

New Mexico’s rivers were recently ranked as the most endangered in the country due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that stripped Clean Water Act protections from ephemeral streams.

Small said the state budget should be used to maximize the efficiency of existing sources of freshwater. Some of the ways that New Mexico has worked to maximize efficiency include lining ditches with concrete to reduce water loss and removing invasive plants from banks.

“But, as we look to diversify and grow our economy, particularly when it comes to zero-carbon solutions…we’re going to need water,” he said.

In part due to federal incentives, New Mexico has seen increased interest in clean energy manufacturing including solar cells and wind turbines.

Small said companies that might be interested in locating in New Mexico to manufacture batteries or electric vehicles or other products needed for the energy transition will need water and, in some cases, those industries have high demands for water.

“I know that it’s very challenging for New Mexico to consider sort of slicing the freshwater pie even further. And so that’s a place where I think that treated brackish water fits for purpose… that’s where I think that brackish water really fundamentally is central to the state,” he said.

He said some industries may need lower salinity than others and that the treatment processes can be tailored for the end use.

At the same time, Small said New Mexico needs to follow and invest in science and implement safeguards. While the governor proposed $500 million for the strategic water supply, investing in science will require additional state funds for projects like aquifer mapping.

He said he would like more details about a timeline for developing the strategic water supply if a bill is brought to the legislature in the future.

In the interim, he said that he is beginning to see early engagement with stakeholders that is “essentially putting all the questions out there” and providing an open forum for discussion around the proposed strategic water supply. And, Small said, there is positive and innovative research occurring across New Mexico, including at universities like New Mexico State University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

He said it is important to take an “all of the above” approach toward water and that focusing on treating brackish water should not come at the expense of watershed restoration.

Small also said it is important to fund efforts to study the aquifers, including aquifer mapping.

Aquifer mapping a limiting factor

One of the biggest unknowns with the treatment of brackish water is how much is available and what its composition is.

D’Antonio said there needs to be more aquifer mapping done.

Former State Engineer Mike Hamman, said that if a well is deeper than 2,500 feet and is drilled into an aquifer that is considered to be in an undeclared basin for non-potable water sources, the Office of the State Engineer requires companies to file a notice of intent to drill a well. 

“Then there will be requirements, once the well is completed, to meter and monitor the volume of water that’s pulled out of that,” Hamman said. “And we would do that to protect any surrounding freshwater aquifers and also to assure that there would be no residual impacts to river flows or anything along that line.”

Hamman said he is aware of three pilot wells for brackish water that have been drilled. Those include two in Sandoval County and one in the Santa Teresa area of southern New Mexico.

Staci Timmons, the Associate Director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, said that in 2016 her agency worked to compile existing water quality data to try to characterize the brackish water aquifers in New Mexico.

She said statewide questions still exist about aquifer depth, water quality, recharge time and long-term usability.

“There’s certainly, we think, a good amount of brackish water because many of our rocks are salt bearing formations, and as you go deeper, we would expect that as the water is moving through lots of deep layers and longer flow paths, it’ll pick up greater mineral content and get saltier,” Timmons said. “But we generally don’t have a crystal clear view of exactly what the brackish water looks like.”

There are places in the state where the brackish water aquifers are a bit better understood.

For example, Timmons said, in the Estancia Basin east of Albuquerque, there is brackish water close to the surface.

“We’ve never really invested in the basic characterization that needs to happen for us to just jump ahead into brackish water yet,” Timmons said.

She said there’s still a lot of work to do on aquifer characterization, including mapping and determining how deep the brackish water supplies are. That will require a significant investment from the state. In 2023, Timmons told state lawmakers that the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources would need $1.25 million annually to hire eight employees to build and maintain an aquifer mapping and monitoring program. On top of that, it would need between $4 million and $10 million a year for ten years to install exploratory and monitoring wells.

One reason this is important is because brackish water supplies could interact with freshwater sources such as rivers or other aquifers. That could compromise the very freshwater sources that the strategic water supply hopes to protect.

Timmons gave the example of a hypothetical brackish water aquifer that interacts with the Pecos River. Developing the hypothetical brackish water aquifer could have downstream implications and even threaten compact compliance, she said. This could occur if there is a connection between the brackish aquifer and the freshwater aquifers. Flows in the Pecos River are in part influenced by the underground aquifer. 

In some areas of the state, Timmons said, the brackish aquifers are not connected to any other source of water. In those places, the water is a nonrenewable resource.

She said if someone plans to invest millions of dollars on a desalination facility, they need to make sure that there is enough brackish water to last more than ten years.

“There has to be substantial research in any given location (where) we want to explore desal,” she said.

But just knowing where the brackish supplies are and how much water is in the aquifers is not enough. Timmons said it’s also important to know what chemical constituents are in the brackish water.

“It’s not just your plain old you know, sodium chloride, seawater,” she said. “You also have things like silicate minerals that are going to have to be filtered out you’re going to have different types of salts, not just sodium and chloride, you might have calcium and sulfate instead. So those molecules are going to require different treatment technologies.”

A small bird floats on an evaporation pond, which collects sediments from brackish water as it evaporates, at The Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Liam DeBonis for NM Political Report)

It’s also important for people to know how drawing the brackish water out from beneath the surface will impact the ground. 

In the Deming area, pumping of groundwater—even freshwater supplies—has led to what is known as subsidence where the ground sinks. 

“We still need to fully map our aquifers in New Mexico and develop groundwater and surface water models to better manage this resource,” D’Antonio said. “That will require measuring and metering our water use along with monitoring our groundwater elevations.”

Metropolitan areas interested too 

As New Mexico looks to grow despite the arid environment and decreasing supplies, a couple of cities have looked toward the brackish water supplies as a possible solution.

For more than two decades, the City of Alamogordo has been studying the possibility of using desalination to treat brackish water. In 2000, Alamogordo filed an application with the Office of the State Engineer to use about 10,000 acre-feet of brackish groundwater from a series of wells in the Snake Tank field. Alamogordo’s brackish water reverse osmosis treatment plant took about two decades to complete.

Farther north, Sandoval County began looking at treated brackish water for industrial purposes about two decades ago and contracted with a company based out of Scottsdale, Arizona, known as New Mexico Water, LLC. This company provided information to the New Mexico Environment Department this spring about their effort.

The company is hoping to develop a desalination and mineral recovery plant with an estimated price tag of $800 million at a location near Placitas. This effort is known as the Rio West Water Project and, while it has been in the works for years, it has been slow to materialize.

“Future development in the properties West of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho depends on making additional water sources available for industrial development including support of future data centers, green hydrogen facilities and others,” the company states in the information provided to the state.

New Mexico Water would take brackish supplies from the San Andreas/Glorieta unit, which is a confined aquifer about 3,500 feet below the surface in the southeastern San Juan Basin.

“Significant process engineering, hydro-geologic investigations and piloting have taken place on this endeavor over the last decade and a half to develop a sound and achievable project.” Gary Lee, the project engineer, said in a document submitted to NMED.

Protecting agricultural producers

While D’Antonio supports the strategic water supply, he said there is a potential that the industrial use of brackish water could compete with agricultural uses.

“Depending on what projects or uses are prioritized, the industrial use of treated brackish water could compete for the same water that the agricultural users would attempt to use,” he said.  

D’Antonio said it could also open the door for increased opportunities to expand the use of treated brackish water into other regulated uses that could support economic development and even provide drought mitigation. 

Some of the examples he gave are growing grass on fallow lands to promote natural carbon sequestration and using the treated water from green hydrogen production, which is something the governor also highlighted when announcing the proposed strategic water supply.

Already, some agricultural producers rely on saline water supplies either for irrigation purposes or to provide water for livestock. 

Water storage tanks at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Liam DeBonis for NM Political Report)

Rebecca Roose, the governor’s infrastructure advisor, said there will be safeguards in any future strategic water supply legislation to ensure those agricultural supplies are not impacted.

“We’re talking about different water than the water that farmers have allocated and are relying upon,” she said.

Legislation that was introduced late in this year’s legislative session and failed to pass included a definition of brackish water that required it to be sourced from aquifers at least 2,500 feet below the surface and with total dissolved solid levels of at least 1,000 milligrams per liter.

“The depth of the well is one safeguard that we’ve identified to hardwire into the program so that it’s clear to everybody, including anybody who’s implementing the program from state agency level that we’re talking about these brackish wells, and those are unallocated sources of water,” Roose said.

Malynda Capelle manages the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo where researchers including universities and businesses are experimenting on ways to increase the efficiency of desalination.

There are ten different pads at the facility that can support individual projects and there are three storage tanks for brackish water.

“The future water supplies will require some level of water treatment, possibly desalination,” she said.

This facility is unique. Capelle said she is not aware of anyone else who is doing the level of research on brackish water that is occurring at the facility in Alamogordo. However, there is a research facility that is looking at desalination of seawater in California and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also has a facility in Yuma, Arizona, that does small scale, internal research on desalination. 

“States like New Mexico and others, we need to get creative with figuring out different ways to fill up the bucket…we’re all going to be competing over the same freshwater sources. So I think we do need to get creative,” she said.

Capelle said that one of the main critiques she hears about desalination is that it is expensive and uses a lot of energy. She acknowledges that desalination is more expensive and energy intensive than freshwater treatment.

“Those were the easy sources. That’s why we use them first,” she said.

At the same time, Capelle said other options are to pipe water hundreds of miles, which can be challenging, expensive and energy intensive.

D’Antonio also identified the cost of building a desalination facility and the energy required as some of the biggest challenges, along with finding the best option for disposing of the concentrate.

But, as a former state engineer and a member of the New Mexico Desalination Association, he sees opportunities for brackish water and the strategic water supply.

“Many western states are using desalination plants to augment their freshwater supplies,” D’Antonio said. “The Strategic Water Supply would greatly benefit New Mexico to aggressively jump into the desalination business by funding a few pilot projects around the state. This should be done in conjunction with ensuring the protection of public health and the environment of the treated brackish water reuse.”

This story was produced by New Mexico Political Report, in partnership with The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

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