New Mexico plans to reuse brackish water for clean energy

December 7, 2023

Many communities in New Mexico rely solely on groundwater for drinking water, posing a supply issue as the Southwest continues to face drier conditions due to climate change. In 2022, the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque dried up for the first time in four decades.

“The aquifers they are pulling from are likely going to be, based on all the studies we’ve seen, are going to dry up in 10 years. We’ve got to find other ways to provide these communities with water,” John Rhoderick, director of the Water Protection Division with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), told Government Market News.

One of those potential new sources could be treating brackish, or highly salty, water into potable or drinkable water, or using the treated water in industrial ways to avoid drawing from drinkable water.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Dec. 5 that the state would invest $500 million to purchase treated brackish water to build a state strategic water supply. The state hopes to incentivize private companies to build plants to treat brackish water for clean energy uses. The state funds will be appropriated during the 2024 and 2025 legislative sessions.

“This is innovation in action: We’re leveraging the private sector to strengthen our climate resiliency and protect our precious freshwater resources,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release.

Although many communities nationwide already reuse brackish water, what makes New Mexico’s efforts different is the agreement to purchase the treated water ahead of time for industrial uses such as creating green hydrogen, storing wind and solar energy and manufacturing electric vehicles, solar panels or wind. Interested companies would pursue an advanced market contract with the state to build and operate the treatment plants.

“We fully believe that the industry partners are going to have the capabilities and things to do this, but they need regulatory surety, and they need some assurance of being able to recoup some costs,” Rhoderick said. “The water treatment or use is not cheap. But it is necessary in a state where our water supplies are dwindling.”

Growing the water supply

For the past three years, the NMED has been working with a water research consortium to study how water can be reused, including water from oil and gas production.

In 2022, oil and gas production throughout the state resulted in over 2 billion barrels of brackish water, of which about 1.2 billion barrels were disposed through injection wells. Diverting 3% of that disposed water to create hydrogen energy could power 2 million homes annually, the governor’s office reported.

However, using treated brackish water comes at a higher expense. The treatment process creates a concentrated brine that has to be disposed of properly, Rhoderick said. Many communities discharge it back into the ocean or inject it into the ground or aquifers. Doing so increases the cost of treating brackish water compared with treating fresh water for drinking purposes.

New Mexico’s best estimate is that 2 billion to 4 billion acre-feet of brackish water could be available in aquifers throughout the state, Rhoderick said. The NMED is partnering with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology university to analyze where these water sources are located and how much water is available.

Once the water-reuse rules are created by the spring, NMED will sort through proposals from private companies on how to use brackish water, looking mainly for proposals that would build treatment plants near where brackish water would be sourced and used, Rhoderick said.

“It’s not effective for the state to purchase water and then figure out how to move it, transport if there’s not infrastructure,” Rhoderick said.

The new rules could also help the state expand existing reuse programs such as reclaimed water, Rhoderick said. Only 40% of reclaimed or treated wastewater water is reused, often for nonpotable uses such as watering golf courses. In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, wastewater is treated enough to be safely injected back into the aquifer.

“To date what we’ve seen is partial treatment, pieces, but we need to put them together, right, build the framework for this thing – let’s see what the end product is,” Rhoderick said. “We’ll set the criteria for what’s acceptable for various uses and then move forward. I’m very confident that we’re going to this is going to be a game changer as far as us moving more quickly down the path for water reuse in New Mexico.”

All news and information on this site is provided by the team at Strategic Partnerships, Inc. Check out this short 1-minute video that provides a quick overview of how we work with clients.

Photo by James St. John

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