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Oil and gas wastewater in our New Mexico chile?

New Mexico leaders are interested in finding new and creative ways to manage 40 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the state’s oil and gas wells each year. One suggestion is to put it to use for agriculture.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union offers this simple suggestion: Go slow and be very careful.

Farmers and ranchers understand how the scarcity of freshwater in arid states creates tension between industries, between corporate users and public water suppliers, and between large and small private users. The old saying “Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting” is a cliché precisely because it rings true.

Efforts within the energy industry to treat and reuse wastewater for their own operations offers great promise, so long as the water is stored and moved safely, and the eventual waste stream is disposed of responsibly.

Reusing this wastewater for agricultural use, however, is a different matter that requires more critical examination. Within the billions of gallons of wastewater that emerge from oil and gas wells are far more questions than answers. Before we consider treating this stew of saltwater and chemicals to irrigate our crops or as drinking water for livestock, we should all be aware of what we know and don’t know about it.

There hasn’t been a scientific or regulatory need to thoroughly analyze the contents of wastewater because, until recently, almost all wastewater has been pumped back into underground wells for final disposal. That means we don’t know a lot about what’s in this water and what impacts – short term and long term – it would have on crops or livestock.

What we know about wastewater should urge us to use great caution. For example, studies across the country have found over 1,600 different ingredients that are either used in hydraulic fracturing, found in produced water, or both. We also know that both the toxicity data on these chemicals and the tools regulators use to track and limit them are currently significantly lacking. That means companies – or regulators – cannot say for sure if toxic chemicals are present, and they certainly can’t say they are not present.

The state, industry, researchers and eventual end-users – like the agriculture industry – should partner together to learn more about this wastewater before we can be convinced to use it on our fields or in our ranching operations, or feel good about its release to our rivers and streams. We were glad to see that the process laid out by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to examine wastewater reuse includes a scientific investigatory group. We hope they will find answers to questions that are important to our community – like soil, crop, livestock, worker and consumer impacts, and we hope a scientist from the agricultural community will be part of the effort.

In addition to answering “what’s in the water, and is it clean enough,” the group should also conduct a comprehensive analysis of the potential benefit that using treated produced water in agriculture could provide. Let’s presume they can clean it sufficiently. How much treated wastewater could realistically benefit the agricultural community? For how long? How much would it cost? Will this tie agriculture to the boom and bust cycle of the oil and gas industry? Right now, we hear a lot of silver-bullet soundbites.

Farmers care deeply about the health and safety of our workers, and the people and animals we feed every day. We understand the excitement around the possibility of a win-win water solution. But we simply aren’t willing to put our reputations, our livelihoods, or our customers at risk without knowing more. The risks are too high. If we’re going to go down this path, we should do so slowly and carefully.

Bill Midcap of Santa Fe is senior policy advisor with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a grassroots organization agricultural organization founded in 1907 representing family farmers and ranchers in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

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