LAS CRUCES – Remove salt to make drinkable, usable water – that’s the mission for a federally-owned desalination research facility in Alamogordo. The Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility or BGNDRF (big-EN-dorf) grants space for companies, government agencies and researchers to pilot-test their new processes for treating with variable salinity.
Problem is, there is more than just salt in the water.
In 2019, The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation discovered persistent synthetic chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – called PFAS – in evaporation ponds for agriculture testing and waste brine in the southwest corner of Alamogordo. In later tests, the agency also found PFAS in two test wells’ groundwater at the site. This shut down half of BGNDRF test wells.
New Mexicans have spent millions in testing and legal fees after wide-ranging PFAS contamination from firefighting foams used at Air Force bases near Clovis and Alamogordo have spread to groundwater and surrounding areas.
Now the federal government is chipping in for repairs.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a $12.6 million investment in a new treatment plant to remove toxic ‘forever chemicals.’
“Specifically, this investment will treat PFAs found in the facility’s groundwater supply, restoring access to research water-supply wells that were previously closed,” Haaland said at an event in Las Cruces on May 3.
An undated photo of the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo. This week, the US Department of the Interior awarded $12.6 million to clean up two wells which were contaminated with toxic ‘forever chemicals.’ (Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)
Climate change and years of compounding drought are challenging communities’ access to water across the western U.S. Changed snowfall patterns and hotter temperatures are shrinking the sources of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. Decades of over-pumping aquifers also means that fresh groundwater resources have declined.
Desalination offers communities the potential to “liberate water supplies,” Haaland said, but not if the water is polluted.
Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.) said the project will “pilot new developments to clean up brackish water all across the country.”
Malynda Capelle, the facility manager for BGNDRF, said the new treatment building at BGNDRF would be under construction between six months to two years.
“This building will take the PFAS out of the water, but will leave the salt behind, so we continue with the desalination research,” she said.
Capelle said the source of the PFAS contamination at BGNDRF is unknown, but pointed to a report that considered the contamination came from a cookware manufacturing company.
One well had PFAS levels 70 times the Environment Protection Agency’s proposed federal drinking water standard of just 4 parts per trillion, would allow.
The Presto facility located nearby to BGNDRF “reportedly manufactured PFAS-coated cookware from 1972 to mid-2002,” according to a 2022 report prepared for the New Mexico Environment Department.
“Limited information has been found regarding operations and waste disposal practices
at Presto, and no investigations have been conducted at that site,” the report said.
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The tests were collected as part of the investigation around fire-fighting foams at Holloman Air Force base, first reported in 2018. The Air Force’s own report showed some PFAS samples at Holloman AFB at more than 1 million parts per trillion – more than 323,000 times greater than the proposed drinking water standards.
Neither the City of Alamogordo, nor Holloman AFB use the groundwater under the base for drinking. Most of their water comes from lake and streamflow out of the Sacramento Mountains.
Frank Ward, a professor in resource economics at New Mexico State University said that desalination offers a good supply of water – if communities are willing to pay for expensive treatment and can store the concentrated brine from the process.
But pollution issues in groundwater need to be addressed in multiple ways, including when the polluter is the federal government, he said.
“The short-term solution is pumping out the water and treating the chemicals,” he said. “But putting good enforcement into place to block contamination in the first place is a long-term solution.”
Turning on the tap
Both the state and the federal government funds are flowing out around desalination research.
Reverse osmosis membranes at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant as seen Sept. 26, 2022 in El Paso. The plant can treat up to 27 million gallons per day of brackish water for much of Eastern El Paso and Fort Bliss residents. (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
In September, the Department of the Interior awarded $20 million to New Mexico’s neighbor, which hosts one of the largest inland desalination plants in the nation. El Paso Water Utility operates the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, which can treat up to 27 million gallons per day, that water then goes to Eastern El Paso and Fort Bliss residents.
Another Interior grant, announced in January, offers $250 million to states for developing desalination projects.
In the 2023 legislative session, New Mexico lawmakers earmarked up to $35 million for use in the Lower Rio Grande, which could include desalination.
“We’re investing aggressively in multiple tools so that we’re more efficient,” said Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces). “We recognize the limits to use, especially with the effects of climate change.”
He said some studies have looked at desalination in Santa Teresa, N.M. and there has been a yearslong effort to build a desalination plant in Alamogordo, near BGDRF, that can deliver clean water to people in southern New Mexico.
“In terms of large-scale augmentation or use, I think that’s still to come,” Small said.
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