Aquifer Find Spreads Hope

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11/06/2008By Sean Olson, Journal Staff Writer

Albuquerque Journal

Aquifer Find Spreads Hope Elsewhere

Sandoval County is riding high after the discovery it is sitting on a bonanza of clear gold in the Rio Puerco basin, but the find could pay dividends to West Side groups with similar ideas.

Atrisco Oil and Gas, a company formed to manage the mineral rights of the Atrisco Land Grant heirs after selling their land to SunCal Cos. two years ago, announced in July it was looking to mine brackish water on its former land and sell it wholesale. The Atrisco heirs still have mineral rights on the land as part of the sale agreement with SunCal.

Peter Sanchez, Atrisco CEO, said Wednesday he was encouraged to see Sandoval County announce it had found enough brackish water to serve a city with 300,000 people for 100 years.

“They’re sitting on a gold mine,” he said.

For Atrisco and other groups, Sandoval County’s success can only help them find financing to get their own projects under way.

Sanchez said Sandoval County has paved the way for his own project, which could be very profitable for the Atrisco heirs if they find even a quarter of the water their neighbors to the north plan to tap.

Atrisco is already in talks with five different organizations — both government and private — to find a financial partner to move forward with its water mining, Sanchez said.

Due to Sandoval County, he said, there isn’t any more need for a sales pitch.

“It helps our cause,” Sanchez said.

Another West Side entrepreneur, Paul Powers, has said he plans to take 10 times as much water out of the ground as Atrisco from his own land in the Rio Puerco Valley within the Pajarito land grant.

Both Atrisco and Powers’ company, Commonwealth Utilities, have yet to determine the exact amount of brackish water located deep underneath their land or mineral holdings. The state engineer does not have jurisdiction over the water because it is located more than 2,500 feet underground.

But there are still plenty of obstacles for all the water pioneers.

Aside from high costs to build wells and desalinate the water — all the supplies contain dissolved salt — there are warnings coming from other water experts to stay away from using the water as a permanent supply.

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority executive director Mark Sanchez said that while there is a place for the water supplies being tapped on the West Side, it shouldn’t be used for any new development.

“These are unsustainable supplies being used for sustainable projects,” he said, referring to Sandoval County’s plans to use the water for the Rio West development west of Rio Rancho.

Unlike the aquifer below Albuquerque, all parties agree these water supplies cannot be renewed.

Mark Sanchez said it is also standard policy for the water authority to challenge any new supply wells, whether they be for surface water or the deep brackish water, in court.

The idea is to force the water miners to prove their water is separate from any existing supplies and won’t affect the aquifer, he said.

Other users of the aquifer could also challenge new wells for the deep brackish water if they chose to.

Mark Sanchez said the brackish water supplies could be very helpful for use as a drought reserve or other temporary boost to any other existing water sources, but the water miners should be careful allocating water to areas that couldn’t be served with it forever.

Peter Sanchez said Atrisco understands those risks and wouldn’t overextend development with a limited water supply.

At the same time, he said, new water is still a gift.

“It’s a new source of water. It’s a good thing,” Peter Sanchez said.

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