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In the short amount of time since the Strategic Water Supply initiative has been announced, there has already been ample confusion between the Supply and the already-existing Strategic Water Reserve. Given the similarity of the names, it is worth going over what each is and what it does – or, as in the case of the Supply, what it could do. 

Strategic Water RESERVE

Created in 2005, the Strategic Water Reserve (SWR) program is administered by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. The Reserve allows water or water rights in New Mexico to stay in the stream, without negatively impacting the water rights holder. The Commission can acquire water or water rights for the Reserve by purchase, lease or donation, but ONLY from willing sellers or lessors. Water or water rights in the Reserve can help meet the needs of river-dependent endangered species and fulfill our water delivery obligations to other states downstream. 

Groundwater rights acquired by the Reserve may be used only for stopping groundwater pumping or for limited short-term streamflow augmentation. All water and water rights in the SWR have to stay within the river reach or groundwater basin of origin and cannot result in any net depletion to that basin. While the narrow purpose is to avoid lawsuits based on non-compliance with endangered species or compact delivery requirements, rivers benefit more generally through increased flows, even if temporary.

The Reserve serves ultimately as a tool for balancing, modernizing and conserving New Mexico’s precious water resources. 

Strategic Water SUPPLY

Announced by Governor Lujan Grisham on December 5th, 2023, the Strategic Water Supply is a proposed initiative by the Administration to protect New Mexico water supplies and support the renewable energy transition by buying treated brackish and produced water. It would then supply that purchased water to water-intensive development and energy projects. Some of the projects proposed include creating green hydrogen, microchips, solar panels and wind turbines, as well as supplementing dwindling aquifer supplies. 

The Administration has said it wants to invest $500 million in the initiative. The New Mexico Environment Department is expected to issue guidance and seek proposals from interested companies early in 2024. The contracting model they plan to use is an Advance Market Commitment (AMC). To date, AMCs have been almost exclusively used for pharmaceutical development. They are generally utilized when the cost of developing a new product as a public good is too high to be worthwhile for the private sector to invest in without a market guarantee.   

Both produced water – a byproduct of almost all oil and gas extraction – and brackish water often contain similar elements that require treatment, including mineral salts, heavy metals and radionuclides. A significant issue with these water sources is what to do with the brine, a byproduct of the treatment process that contains the removed salts, metals, radionuclides and other toxic materials. Most proposed solutions are to either inject the material into deep aquifers (with a risk for earthquakes and contamination of drinking water aquifers) or put it into evaporation ponds, with the majority of the dried toxic material transported to a certified hazardous waste disposal site. 

It remains to be seen how the Administration and industry propose overcoming these hurdles.