SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico State Land Office announced Tuesday that it will be halting the practice of allowing fresh water to be pumped from state trust land and sold for use in oil and gas development.
Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard detailed the shift in policy in a letter to companies that hold easements that grant access to trust land for pumping fresh water. Under the change, existing easements will not be renewed once they expire, and no new easements will be issued.
She pointed to the scarcity of fresh water resources in New Mexico, saying the policy is aimed at encouraging the industry to use recycled water or produced water, which is wastewater that result from oil and gas operations.
The agency cited data reported by companies to FracFocus, a national registry, that indicated nearly 14.5 billion gallons of water were used for overall production in New Mexico in 2019, with recycled or produced water making up only a fraction of the total use.
According to the State Land Office, oil production on trust land in the Permian Basin is at an all-time high despite disruptions that resulted from a global price war earlier this year and the ongoing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. That has resulted in the availability of more produced water.
Garcia Richard suggested that more intervention is needed from the state Legislature to address New Mexico’s water issues and that the policy change within her agency marks a small step to help preserve fresh water resources.
“Rather than looking at fresh water as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, we should look at the advancements in water recycling and produced water as our way forward,” she said in a statement. “There is simply no reason for fresh water to be used for fracking.”
She said small communities in close proximity to the basin already are fighting the industry for access to fresh water.
There have been more dry years than wet ones in New Mexico over the past couple of decades, meaning there has been little chance for rivers, reservoirs and aquifers to be replenished.
This year has been particularly bad, as more than half of the state is dealing with exceptional drought, which is the worst category. At this same time last year, there were only thin bands of moderate to severe drought in northern New Mexico.
The state also is under pressure to deliver water to Texas via the Rio Grande and Pecos River as part of decades-old interstate compacts. In southeastern New Mexico, the state has been pumping water to augment the Pecos River to account for losses because of the ongoing drought.