The war on New Mexico's water


As residents of the West, each of us keeps, either consciously or not, a checklist of those things that make our lives here worthwhile. Some of those things add to our quality of life, like cultural diversity and breathtaking landscapes. Others, like clean water, fall more into the necessities of life category. Without clean water, we don't drink, we don't eat, and everything collapses.

That's why it's so puzzling that New Mexico's Governor, Susana Martinez, has launched a blitzkrieg on all New Mexico's laws that protect our most precious resource. The assault began with the oil and gas industry's effort to roll back New Mexico's Oil & Gas pit rule. The pit rule regulates how oil and gas producers dispose of the wastes generated during drilling operations, like “produced” water that contains high concentrations of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and fracking chemicals.

The pit rule was proposed by the state agency that regulates oil and gas exploration and production, and it was the product of over a year of stakeholder input and hearings. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for enacting regulations that govern oil and gas development, unanimously passed the rule in order to protect New Mexico's water and public health. In sum, every state agency involved with regulating oil and gas in New Mexico recognized the need to protect our water.

That was in 2008. In the last two years, since Martinez was elected, though, every state agency, board and commission has now reached the conclusion that the regulations they deemed important in 2008 are now overly burdensome (in the case of the Oil Conservation Commission) or not worth defending. In Martinez's New Mexico, the Commission is actively partnering with the oil and gas industry to roll back environmental regulations while the agency that originally proposed the regulation sits on the sidelines and watches its invested time, money and resources get flushed down the drain.

This tactic of state regulatory agencies standing aside while polluters ride roughshod over environmental and public health regulations has become the new normal in New Mexico. It's now happening with regulations designed to protect groundwater from industrial dairy operations. Just last year, the New Mexico Environment Department agreed that the state's sizable industrial dairy farms would be subject to all provisions of statewide groundwater regulations. Now, when the dairy industry wants to loosen or remove important parts of those regulations, our Environment Department stands mute.

To make matters worse, Martinez's appointees at the Environment Department are doing more than sitting on the sidelines while environmental protections are dismantled, they are taking an active role in facilitating the copper mining industry's attempt to gut proposed regulations that would protect groundwater from copper mining.  The Environment Department's top lawyer used to work for the law firm that represents the copper mining industry in the rule-making. Now he has disregarded the substantive recommendations of his own technical staff and adopted wholesale the proposals made by Big Copper. If adopted, they would allow unchecked groundwater contamination at every open-pit copper mine in New Mexico.  This proposal will be considered next spring by a commission comprised of agency personnel and political appointees.

Why, when global warming threatens to make scarce water resources even more elusive, would New Mexico's regulatory agencies stand idly by and watch extractive industries maneuver to destroy our water? Maybe it's because the oil and gas industry bought Governor Martinez the Governor's mansion. Maybe it's because boards and commissions charged with enacting the regulations governing industrial activities are now stacked with current and former industry employees or people closely associated with industry. Maybe it's to advance a radical ideology where every person (including corporate persons) are free to pollute the commons in pursuit of a buck. Whatever the reasons, the result is that our Governor has declared war on our water. And with New Mexico regulatory agencies, boards and commissions becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of the industries they regulate, the future of New Mexico's water looks grim.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Image of a holding pond with produced water from energy operations courtesy Flickr user EnergyTomorrow.

Aerial image of the Rio Grande, New Mexico's major river, as it flows from Colorado into New Mexico, courtesy Flickr user Storm Crypt.

High Country News Classifieds