Atrisco Strikes Brackish Gold

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07/25/2008Joel Gay

Atrisco Strikes Brackish Gold

A company drilling for natural gas on Albuquerque’s West Side has struck another valuable commodity — water.

Atrisco Oil & Gas drilled into an aquifer believed to be 50 square miles in size and at least 1,000 feet deep, said Atrisco CEO Peter Sanchez. There’s sand throughout the aquifer, so it’s unclear how much water it contains, but it’s a huge find nevertheless, he said.

“It’s a very good bit of news” for the Albuquerque area, which by many accounts has already exceeded the available water for its current population, Sanchez said. The discovery of a large aquifer could make it easier to accommodate the anticipated growth of another 100,000 homes on the West Side in the next 20 years, he said.

The drilling occurred on land north of Interstate 40, between the Rio Puerco and the extinct volcanoes on Albuquerque’s western rim, Sanchez said. The area has been explored in the past, and a great deal of geological information has been amassed, he said. When Tecton Energy LLC drilled a 7,900-foot-deep well last year on land it leases in the area, it expected to hit a pocket of natural gas, Sanchez said. “It turned out to be a large reservoir of water.”

Additional drilling will confirm the size and quality of the water body, but preliminary testing suggestsit may be a good candidate for desalination, Sanchez said. “Our tests show it’s on the low end” of the salinity spectrum, meaning it could be financially viable to pump the water and remove the salt.

The water also appears to have acceptable levels of dissolved minerals, such as arsenic, he said.

It is expected to take up to two years and $2 million to determine whether the water is, in fact, the bonanza it appears to be, Sanchez said.

Desalination is seen by many as the answer to the world’s looming shortage of fresh water. El Paso has already tapped into a brackish-water aquifer, and Alamogordo has been cleared to begin work on a plant. Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas are pondering desalination projects, too.

Atrisco’s discovery is the second in the Albuquerque area. The Independent reported in May about a project being undertaken by Sandoval County and Recorp Partners Inc. in the Rio Puerco basin, farther to the northwest. Two exploratory wells found a large pocket of brackish water, and testing has begun to determine whether desalination is feasible. As with Atrisco, a positive finding could pave the way for additional growth in the area, particularly in Rio Rancho.

Asked whether Atrisco and Sandoval County might be tapping into the same aquifer, Sanchez said it’s “highly unlikely. They’re quite a distance from us.” And the earlier geophysical testing suggests that Atrisco’s aquifer is contained within a large, triangular formation more than a mile underground, he said.

As with the Sandoval find, the Atrisco water was found deeper than 2,500 feet, which means it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Office of the State Engineer. Water found at less than 2,500 feet is managed by the OSE. Sanchez said the Tecton well hit water at depths from 6,200 to 7,200 feet.

If the water can be treated to drinking-water quality, Atrisco has several options, all of which are good, Sanchez said. It could lease the rights to the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority; it could inject the water into the shallow aquifer beneath Albuquerque for future use; or it could pump the treated water directly into the Rio Grande to help satisfy the demand by downstream users.

And if the water proves to be too salty to use now, Atrisco has the option of waiting until the technology improves and costs come down, he said.

“Whether or not we can extract this natural resource today or at some later point, the city of Albuquerque may now have a new source of much-needed water,” Sanchez said in release issued earlier Friday. “The only issue greater than the alarming depletion of the area’s natural resources is the demand for more. We are very excited about the possibilities of this discovery and how it can benefit the Albuquerque area.”

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