Senators, Udall seek to put off drilling on Otero Mesa

From the Santa Fe New Mexican

By FELICIA FONSECA | Associated Press

May 23, 2007

Congressional delegation wants to ensure groundwater is protected

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s congressional delegation is asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to hold off on its oil and gas leasing program on Otero Mesa until a study on the state’s groundwater resources is completed.

Of particular interest to Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is the Salt Basin Aquifer beneath Otero Mesa. Many people consider the aquifer to be the largest remaining untapped fresh water supply in New Mexico.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the aquifer in southeastern New Mexico may contain as much as 57 million acre-feet of water, of which 15 million acre-feet may be potable. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.

Domenici and Bingaman are co-sponsoring a bill that would authorize a more in-depth USGS study to find out whether oil and gas drilling would contaminate the aquifer. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has introduced a similar bill in the House.

The Senate bill, called the New Mexico Aquifer Assessment Act, lists the Estancia, Tularosa, Hueco and Middle Rio Grande basins as priority areas of study in addition to Otero Mesa.

“In a Southwestern state, where water issues are a constant concern, the potential for an additional safe water supply is of utmost concern,” Udall wrote in a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Bingaman also sent a letter to the department, urging protection of the aquifer. Domenici sent a similar letter to acting BLM Director John Hughes on Tuesday.

Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the BLM in New Mexico, said the agency is reviewing the letters.

Nathan Newcomer, media director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the letters represent a tremendous victory for New Mexico citizens.

“Our congressional delegation has recognized in a bipartisan manner that it’s more important to protect the largest and wildest grassland left on public lands in America and that it’s more important to protect the largest untapped aquifer in the state from a few days worth of oil and gas,” he said.

Bingaman, in his letter, said 90 percent of New Mexicans rely on groundwater for their drinking supply.

“Increasing demands on this limited resource means it’s critical for us to fully understand our aquifers, and this bill will help us do that,” he said.

Domenci spokesman Chris Gallegos said the senator supports energy production in the United States but wants to determine if oil and gas drilling would affect the water supply.

“Our water is a most precious resource, and I have always believed it must be thoughtfully studied and protected,” Domenici wrote in his letter to Hughes.

Otero Mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert. It has the nation’s largest contiguous patch of black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish and is not available as commercial seed. The mesa also is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

Out of the 2 million acres, a total of 1,589 would be disturbed by drilling practices such as additional roads, well pads and pipelines under the BLM plan. In addition, no more than 5 percent can be disturbed on the grasslands at any specific time.

There are no pipelines on the land and no producing wells, but Stuart noted that two leases exist along with a third that was approved after the BLM revamped its plan.

“We don’t know whether or not companies are going to try and develop those leases,” Stuart said. “We’re being very conservative in allowing other leases to be offered because we will not exceed the limits we have set.”

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Coalition for Otero Mesa
Phone: (505) 843-8696 | Fax: (505) 843-8697
Email: oteromesa@yahoo.com
Contact us for more information about the Coalition for Otero Mesa, oil & gas development, or the ongoing effort to protect the last wild lands and open spaces in New Mexico.