07/26/2008By Juan-Carlos Rodriguez, Journal Staff Writer
Printed from ABQjournal.com, a service of the Albuquerque Journal
It’s a water free-for-all.
That’s what the state engineer says of an increasing number of deep wells that are being explored by various public and private entities.
Atrisco Oil and Gas LLC, a company formed to manage the mineral rights of Atrisco Land Grant heirs and other shareholders, this week reported it has discovered a deep reservoir of brackish water under the West Mesa, more than 6,000 feet down in an area between the volcanos and the Rio Puerco north of I-40. This week, the company filed a notice of intent with the Office of the State Engineer to appropriate 12,000 acre-feet a year from 35 potential wells on a 50-square-mile parcel where it believes the water is contained. It filed the claim after hitting the water in a well that was being used to explore for natural gas.
And about a week earlier, Commonwealth Utilities Corp., a Moriarty-based utilities company, filed a notice of intent to appropriate 110,000 acre-feet a year from a well it has yet to sink at a location on the Southwest Mesa. The notice also states the well would be connected to a desalination plant at some point in the future.
A similar brackish water supply was found in Sandoval County about a year ago when the county, in partnership with a private company, drilled two exploratory wells. The county is just now starting tests to determine the quantity and quality of the water it found about eight miles west of Rio Rancho in the Rio Puerco Basin. Those tests should be completed in November. The county has said it will consider a desalination plant if there is enough water to supply municipal areas, such as Rio Rancho, Bernalillo and Corrales.
El Paso is the nearest city with an operational desalination plant. It processes both groundwater and water from the Rio Grande. The plant opened in 2007 and cost about $87 million.
At a news conference Friday, Atrisco CEO Peter Sanchez said preliminary tests show that the water from the reservoir his company is tapping is only mildly salinated and potentially could be turned into drinking water.
“We think we can treat the water using standard desalination techniques and convert it into potable-quality water,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the water is isolated in a triangular area bounded by three fault lines.
“Based on our initial seismic readings, there appears to be a substantial quantity of water in a self-contained basin that is not connected to the Rio Puerco or the Albuquerque aquifers,” Sanchez said. “The water is between 6,200 and 7,200 feet below the surface. We are working with engineers and hydrologists to determine the feasibility of retrieving the water.”
Desalinating the water would be a huge cost for whoever took on the task, and Sanchez said it will be 18 to 24 months before Atrisco completes its preliminary tests that will provide a better picture of the water’s quantity and quality. Even the preliminary tests will cost between $1 million and $2 million, and Sanchez said Atrisco soon will begin speaking with various public and private agencies that may want to buy in and help fund the tests.
“The process to deliver water is a long one; however, more testing is needed. But at this time what we want to do is follow through on our tests because we believe the quality of our water will not change,” Sanchez said.
According to information from Atrisco, there are three main ways the company is looking to profit from the water find:
Commonwealth’s notice of intent says the water it hopes to find would be used for domestic, livestock, irrigation, municipal, industrial, commercial, subdivision or recreational uses in Bernalillo, Cibola, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan, Santa Fe, Sierra, Socorro, Taos, Torrance and Valencia counties.
Commonwealth’s president, Paul Powers, could not be reached Friday evening for comment.
Loophole in the law
Sanchez said because the Atrisco water is more than 2,500 feet underground, Atrisco won’t have to file a formal application to appropriate the water, thanks to a state law that says water found below that depth is not under the jurisdiction of the state engineer.
“The Office of the State Engineer does not have regulatory authority over (the water’s) development and appropriation,” Sanchez said. “However, Atrisco was required to give notice and we have. And we also intend to submit our plan of development to the state engineer’s office.”
State Engineer John D’Antonio said he tried to get the law changed last year but couldn’t even get a hearing at the Legislature.
“It’s one of those loopholes in state water law,” D’Antonio said. “It would be nice to have a step where the state engineer could look at (an application), condition it, monitor to make sure there are no detrimental effects, no impairment issues. What’s to keep another entity from going into the same aquifer and filing another notice? It’s like a free-for-all.”
D’Antonio said one of the most important jobs of his agency is bypassed because of the loophole: the ability of the public to protest and get a hearing about a water appropriation.
“There’s no chance for those protections,” D’Antonio said.
Opponents of changing the law, including Atrisco, say the court system is a fine way to resolve complaints over water.
John Stomp, the Albuquer-que-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority water re-sources manager, said he’s not sure the aquifer Atrisco has tapped into is separate from the one the authority uses.
“We’re concerned that they’d be pumping our water,” Stomp said. “Further hydrologic studies have to be done.”
Stomp said the authority would like to talk with Atrisco regarding those concerns. He said because the Office of the State Engineer has no jurisdiction over water at that level, if there was a dispute it would have to go to state District Court. Stomp emphasized that was only a possibility.
“The first step is to get the information they have, then figure out what the next steps are.”
Sanchez said Atrisco hasn’t contacted the authority or any other organization that might have an interest in the water, such as Rio Rancho.
“We are securing the asset first,” Sanchez said. “Those talks are in front of us.”
Bill Turner, a Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board member, said the district should watch the Atrisco development closely.
“If the brackish water wells that they plan to develop cause a depletion on the Rio Grande, I think the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District would be opposed to them,” Turner said. “They may not have to do an application, nevertheless we could have a claim against them for causing depletions … So we need to look at it very carefully.”
Sanchez said the water was found while Texas-based Tecton Energy was searching for natural gas or oil. Atrisco contracted with Tecton to drill on about 57,000 acres.
Because Tecton’s contract was only for gas or oil, it will not profit from the water discovery.
Sanchez said Atrisco will look for a good company to work with on the water project. Meanwhile, Tecton will continue looking for gas or oil elsewhere on Atrisco land.
Atrisco was formed by Sun-Cal Companies to manage mineral rights after the California land development company purchased the acreage for $250 million from Atrisco land heirs.
The heirs split the mineral rights with Sun-Cal, but continue to have sole rights to all the royalties for about 17,000 acres leased for drilling before the sale. The water was found on that land.