ALBUQUERQUE — Looking out at the urban sprawl on Albuquerque’s arid perimeter, it’s easy to envision an army of construction workers putting up block after block of cookie-cutter homes and developers hawking subdivisions as far as the eye can see. What’s harder to envision is the water for all those additional toilets, lawns and sinks.
But Sandoval County and a corporate partner are betting that the water is already there, just waiting to be tapped and cleaned. It will cost them millions of dollars to know for sure, and tens of millions more to get the water flowing, but the partners say wringing the salt out of brackish water from deep beneath the Rio Puerco drainage is their best bet to keep the houses coming.
The county and Recorp Partners Inc. are jumping on the desalination bandwagon, and by all appearances they’re getting on early. A new national report says desalination of brackish water could be a new source of an increasingly rare commodity — clean drinking water — but that many questions remain, including potential environmental side effects.
Recent advances in technology have made removing salt from seawater and groundwater a realistic option for increasing water supplies in some parts of the U.S., and desalination will likely have a niche in meeting the nation’s future water needs…. However, a coordinated research effort with steady funding is required to better understand and minimize desalination’s environmental impacts — and find ways to further lower its costs and energy use.
And New Mexico could end up playing a major role in that “coordinated research effort” as a new federal facility near Alamogordo prepares to begin work.
Another city, built from scratch
The ancestral residents in what is now Sandoval County chose to settle in the relatively lush Rio Grande Valley, where they had easy access to water. While newcomers to the county located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe have had to build farther from the river, that hasn’t kept the county from growing. Its biggest city, Rio Rancho, sprang out of the barren mesa on the northwest edge of Albuquerque in the 1960s and is the third-largest community in the state, with nearly 80,000 residents.
Now Recorp Partners, a Scottsdale, Ariz., developer, wants to build what some have called a “second Rio Rancho” in Sandoval County. Recorp has proposed to turn 12,000 acres of empty land west of Rio Rancho into a new city, Rio West. The plan calls for 30,000 homes, plus businesses, an airport, schools, parks, and, naturally, a golf course.
The catch is water.
In the old days, cities such as Albuquerque and Rio Rancho could provide water to their residents by buying surface water rights and pumping water out of the Rio Grande and other rivers or by drilling into ancient aquifers and tapping into the clean water. Many southwestern cities have done both.
But with an ever-growing population competing for a small slice of New Mexico’s total water supply (9 percent is used for drinking water, 76 percent for agriculture), competition for water is fierce. Water is not just fully allocated to existing users, it’s over-allocated, Laura Paskus wrote last year in a comprehensive story in the Santa Fe Reporter.
Sandoval County has seen its share of disputes over water, said county Water Planner Guy Bralley. After one such incident in Placitas, the county commission made a pre-emptive strike and said that, henceforth, developers in unincorporated areas must show they have a 100-year supply of water before a development is approved.
For Recorp, that meant either drilling wells or buying surface water rights from agricultural users, neither of which looked feasible, Bralley said. The aquifers are spoken for, while water rights could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Desalination, while expensive, looked like a better alternative, Bralley said.
“How are you going to keep growing,” he asked. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
Flood of desalination projects ahead?
Coastal communities have been taking the salt out of seawater for years, but inland cities are starting to join them out of need. El Paso was in danger of exhausting its aquifer when it decided to build a desalination plant, according to El Paso Water Utilities. Opened in 2007 at a cost of $87 million — including $27 million in federal funding — it churns out 27.5 million gallons of fresh water a day, or roughly a quarter of the city’s demand.
Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas are pondering desalination projects, too.
In early April, the state District Court in Alamogordo cleared the way for that city to tap the Tularosa Basin for about 1.3 billion gallons of brackish water a year. Work has already started on the desalination plant.
Other inland communities in New Mexico and beyond could follow suit as desalination technology improves, costs decline and environmental hurdles are overcome. Answering those challenges is exactly what Congress intended when it established the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo. The facility, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, opened its doors last year but is just now starting to accept research projects, said manager John Walp. New Mexico State University and Sandia National Laboratories, through its Water Initiative, are partners, but the facility is open to other research proposals, he said.
The National Research Council study released last week says environmental research should be the highest priority, particularly in the field of energy use. One type of desalination, reverse osmosis, uses 10 times more energy than traditional treatment of surface water, the report says, and its authors urged researchers to look into integrating solar, wind and other alternative energy sources to lower the carbon footprint of desalination.
Sandoval work just beginning
Sandoval County and Recorp already have drilled two wells in the Rio Puerco basin that hit a large reservoir of brackish water. Because the aquifer is more than 2,500 feet below the surface and because the salinity is extremely high — about one-third the salinity of seawater — the partners don’t need water rights or permission from the Office of the State Engineer to use the water.
They do, however, need a state permit before they can determine how much water lies below, which is a key to the project’s feasibility. Testing will require the wells to run continuously at 300 gallons per minute for a month, Bralley said. That’s nearly 13 million gallons of brackish water that must be contained or used, and the state Environment Department has to OK the water disposal plan. The testing should be accomplished this summer, he said.
Beyond the big question — is there enough water for 100 years? — there are dozens more questions that must be answered before work might begin. One of the big ones is what to do with the toxic waste salt. Coastal desalination plants can dilute it and send it back into the ocean; inland plants may be able to inject it deep underground, but only if the area’s geology allows it. “You don’t want it creeping off to other places,” Bralley said. Otherwise it might have to be stored in lined pits.
Energy costs are unknown now, but could be substantial, he said. Recorp has installed equipment at the site to see if wind or solar energy might be used, but alternative energy sources would likely have to be combined with natural gas or electric power, he added.
The total cost of the project won’t be known until more questions are answered, but the bills are coming in already. Each of the two test wells cost about $2 million to drill, Bralley said, and other work is expected to bring the total of this exploratory phase to about $6 million. The county had asked for financial help from the state Water Trust Board on the preliminary planning, but the request was nixed last week.
Sandoval County and Recorp last year agreed to split the costs and the water, once it comes. The county will pay 66 percent of the expenses in exchange for any water beyond that required by Recorp, Bralley said. The company has claims on the first 18,000 acre-feet per year — nearly 9 billion gallons — which is expected to be enough for the proposed community, but may not need that much until Rio West develops. In the meantime, the county could sell the unused water to Rio Rancho or other communities, he said.
There’s no doubt the plant will be expensive — $20 million is “on the low end,” Bralley said, and some published estimates put it at $40 million. But the people and businesses of the booming Southwest need water, he said, and desalination appears to be the least expensive route. “There’s a fair number of things you can do if you’re willing to pay the price,” he said.