Spending on an Unstrategic Badwater Not-Much-of-a-Supply

The so-called strategic water supply is the opposite, like “produced water” as a name for toxic oil field waste. It is not beginning with the end in mind. It is not putting first things first. It is not informed by facts and science. It is unvetted. It is wrong.

Where did this come idea come from? Our Governor announced it from Dubai, located on the desert Mediterranean shore of North Africa, that has no freshwater. The only irrigation is from municipal wastewater. Drinking water comes from ocean desalination plants.

Dubai desal plant. Energy and seawater in, massive carbon footprint and expensive water out
Dubai ocean desalination plant

Water produced by an ocean desalination plant costs about $7.50 for a thousand gallons, or $2,450 per acre-foot. Ocean desal plants pump water from the limitless ocean and discharge the waste brine to the ocean. In Dubai, a petroleum absolute monarchy, energy is cheap and carbon emissions are not a consideration.

A typical Albuquerque household uses about 11,000 gallons per month, on average. The average cost is $35 per month, or about $425 dollars per year. The raw water costs the water utility nothing, the costs cover operations and infrastructure.

What if the water itself required desalination at the ocean desal rate of $7.50 per 1000 gallons plus 50% for pumping the water from deep within the ground, pumping it to the desal plant, and costly disposal of the residual brine with no ocean handy. That would boost the cost to $11.20 per 1000 gallons. If that were the water authority’s source, in lieu of sweetwater, the Albuquerque resident’s bill would go up 356%, from $425 per year to $1,500.

Exhaust stacks at Dubai Desal Plant

Oil field waste, marketed by the oil and gas folks as “produced water” is incredibly more difficult to treat. Treatment for discharge to a large river reportedly costs $10 per barrel in Pennsylvania, about $78,000 per acre-foot.

If the cost were only $2 per barrel, the number New Mexico produced water proponents toss around, half a billion dollars would buy 32,000 acre-feet of water once. Why? Permian Basin produced water is 20% salt by weight, or more. Cheaper desal treatment doesn’t work with that much salt. The highly corrosive brine must all be boiled, the condensate captured, treated more to remove poisons, and then stored. That leaves huge volumes of salt requiring disposal.

More reasons to put this idea aside.

  1. We need to face our hydrologic and climate change water future and take productive action. We have no dollars or hours to waste on ideas that can’t pencil out. That’s engineer jargon for concepts that are not technically and financially feasible.
  2. The desalination disruption of the 2024 Legislature by the Governor’s half-billion dollar speculation comes simultaneously with the Legislature’s and the Governor’s neglect to fund water basics essential to New Mexico’s future.
  3. The Governor and the Legislature are not meeting or adequately addressing the critical basic needs of New Mexico for water security.  Without water security, there is no economic security. 
  4. New Mexico is failing to fund and do the crucial water management work identified by a consensus of the 2022 Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force.  
  5. The State of New Mexico’s current water administration consists of issuing permits in most areas of New Mexico and not looking back. Wet water scarcity is worsening and the State’s paper and data are in disarray.
  6. The State of New Mexico watched the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by individual water rights owners maximizing their private benefit without planning or action and is still accepting applications for more and more supplemental wells for the race to the bottom. The externalized costs sacrifice the welfare of all of eastern New Mexico. Only the scientists and activists seem to be paying attention.
  7. That situation is playing out in other closed basin aquifers or slowly recharging aquifers across New Mexico as you read this.
  8. The State of New Mexico is failing to fund and staff the basics of 21st century water management for our much more arid future. The 2024 Legislature underfunded or did not provide any funding for these essentials.
    • Water Data – 2019 Water Data Act Implementation.
    • Aquifer Characterization in a state that depends on groundwater more than any other state. We don’t know how much water we have left after a century of hard pumping.
    • Regional water planning – 2023 Water Security Planning Act Implementation, which means the State of New Mexico must fund regions and communities to begin appropriate self-organization of the Regional Water Planning Entities authorized and made responsible by the 2023 Act.
  9. The State of New Mexico fails its employees by not prioritizing two essential things that successful enterprises always do.
    • New Mexico water agencies fail to provide their workers with modernization – modern information technology, training, productive work processes, quality assurance, etc
    • As a result, workers productivity and individual contributions are not what they could be and must become.
  10. It is just not right to neglect the basics – staff capacity in all water agencies, full-bore implementation of the 2019 Water Data Act, meeting our downstream water delivery obligations, accelerated aquifer research, regional water planning, watershed restoration, protection of our headwaters, replacing the clean water regulatory authority the US Supreme Court just stripped from over 90% of our waters – while spending wildly on speculative unplanned, infrastructure.  
  11. Many New Mexico communities need help to replace failed existing infrastructure, like pipes that don’t leak.
  12. It’s just not right for the Governor and Legislature to deny funds for the New Mexico Environment Department to prevent water pollution and clean-up contaminated groundwater, while demanding NMED devote scarce professional staff resources to this.
  13. It is shameful to have top state appointed officials – smart, experienced, educated people – to be purveyors of disinformation as they were during the 2024 legislature.
  14. Desal has a huge carbon footprint. Produced water treatment has a MASSIVE carbon footprint. The energy required is enormous and the carbon load is unacceptable.
  15. The New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium management tells half-truths and flat out lies. Professors’ research findings are twisted and described without “scientific integrity and adherence to principles of honesty, objectivity, transparency and professionalism” by the Consortium’s public faces. See Section 72-14A-4 (7) NMSA 1978.
  16. The Consortium’s manager refuses to do a basic feasibility study that would show the utter infeasibility of the vision that the PWRC is publicly espousing. Some Oil and Gas Companies know this truth but remain silent. They require a complete release of liability.
  17. The potential for unknown adverse consequences is unacceptable. We know very little about New Mexico’s brackish water and saline aquifers or their interconnections to the legally protected aquifers above or beside.  The NM Legislature appropriated millions last year to begin that characterization.  
  18. A huge State of New Mexico capital investment pledged without doing any basic science first is not the right way. 

Only if we wake up NOW, will it be possible for future generations of New Mexicans to live in our beloved New Mexico, our home place, our querencia.  Collaboration can get us where we need to be.  Reaching Agreement. Nothing else will. Change–Big Change–is essential. We must change, or lose New Mexico for most of our descendants, forever.


Norm Gaume, P.E. (ret.), Water Resources Management and Planning Engineer


  1. Debbie Sarinana on March 7, 2024 at 2:09 pm

    Hello Norm,

    As a member of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, House Appropriations and Finance Committee and LFC, I’d like to work with you and your group to find legislative solutions to these problems. Let me know when we can get together to discuss these issues.

    Rep. Debbie Sarinana

  2. Norm Gaume on March 7, 2024 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you, Rep. Sarinana, I plan to attend the Legislators’ Town Hall at the Outpost Performance Center that you are participating in at 2 pm Sunday, May 10. I look forward to seeing you there and hearing what you and the the other five legislators have to say. I hope you and others will address the issues described here and in the Sweetwater article that accompanies it.

    We so appreciate your outreach and definite would like to meet with you and other legislators, particularly members of the two finance committees.

  3. Carol Pittman on March 8, 2024 at 10:51 am

    It is well known that our Augustin Plains community has been fighting an inappropriate application to mine water in the Plains and to transport that water out of the basin. This fight has lasted 17 years (2007 to 2024), a clear indication that there are no clear regulations governing groundwater. I am grateful to Norm Gaume for making this gaping hole in water management visible to all the citizens of New Mexico.

  4. VICKY G ESTRADA-BUSTILLO on March 28, 2024 at 10:10 am

    Norm – this is Vicky Estrada-Bustillo. My background is in Natural Resources and I agree with much of what is recommended in your Summary. Can you give me a call, as I would like to arrange a time to meet with you about specific actions that can be taken now. Thanks

  5. Bradford Armstrong on April 6, 2024 at 3:52 pm

    Hello Norm, I’m an individual investor in public health with a focus on clean water and diagnostic tools for infectious diseases. I’d like to understand whether or not a technology out of Poland that I support would be appropriate to try and solve part of the water crisis we face here in New Mexico and globally. I need advice. The technology received a $3 million dollar grant from the US Department of Energy to commercialize the technology and an ongoing grant from the Polish government to bring the technology to be part of the solution to the crisis they face there. I invested in the technology with healthcare professionals out of the UK and South Korea. If the technology is not appropriate in this case, I’d like to find an alternative solution. Thank you.

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