Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Strategic Water Surprise: bill tabled yesterday, resurrected

In a meeting lasting just 30 minutes, the Senate Conservation Committee resuscitated a tabled bill prioritized by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and passed it along Wednesday morning to the Senate Finance Committee on a 5-3 “no recommendation” vote.

There were two changes amending Senate Bill 294, which holds the proposal to enact the governor’s “Strategic Water Supply.”

The first change moves the sale of $100 million in severance bond to next year, if approved during the 60-day session in 2025.

The second is removing a definition to “brackish water” and wrapping it into “treated brackish water.” Treated brackish water is now defined as pulled from a deep aquifer 2,500 feet or below, with 1,000 parts per million total dissolved solids (salts), that undergoes water treatment.

To become law, it would have to pass the committee, a Senate floor vote and pass the other chamber, a tall order as the legislature approaches its final 24-hours.

An email requesting comment from Lujan Grisham’s office was not immediately returned, we’ll update with further comment.

What is the Strategic Water Supply?

Last November, at a climate summit in Dubai, Lujan Grisham announced her intent to establish a market for treated oil and gas wastewater, and brackish water from deep aquifers to provide water for manufacturing solar and wind, or for use in hydrogen fuel.

In the 2024 State of State, Lujan Grisham asked for $500 million in severance bond sales, and made it a pillar of the long awaited 50-year water plan announcement.

After the measure was stripped from the capital outlay package, it was brought in a stripped-down bill in the final days of the session. That bill cut oil and gas wastewater and $400 million from the request. Instead Senate Bill 294, requested sales in $100 million in bonds for the purchase of treated brackish water for sale to industry.

Committee chair Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos) declined public comment on the second hearing of Senate Bill 294 early Wednesday morning, saying “we have heard your comments and had a full hearing yesterday.”

On Tuesday, Indigenous and environmental coalitions raised concerns about the rushed nature of the bill, its lack of details on brine disposal, concerns about aquifer integrity or unintended consequences of pumping deep water that may not be rechargeable and making water a commodity. In that hearing the bill was tabled by the committee on a 8-1 vote.

In round two Wednesday, Stefanics, the sponsor for Senate Bill 294, stayed in her seat and let the people serving the governor’s office explain the changes. She brought up Rebecca Roose, the infrastructure advisor to Lujan Grisham’s office, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and State Engineer Mike Hamman.

“As one of the sponsors of the bill I’m going to stay here, because it’s really your bill, or what changes you made,” Stefanics said.

Roose went through the amendments, one of which she described as  any sale of the bonds until lawmakers authorize it in next year’s 60-day session.

Kenney called it “a real-time evolution of the bill.”

“[It] continues to facilitate the industries engaging with the state of New Mexico, but will not commit us to any projects, any dollars going out until we can back together through the interim and through the next session,” Kenney said.

Roose reiterated the bill does not require lawmakers to pass it in the next session, in response to a question from Sen. Steven Neville (R-Farmington).

Sen. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces) called it “a much softer bill,” and requested Roose to “assure me again this is only dealing with brackish water, at this point, this is not produced water.”

Roose said that was correct, and the bill is “limited to brackish water at this point in time for the program.”

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) asked about water contamination or depletion.

Hamman, the state engineer, said the permitting process and required monitoring of the wells were in place, and that “close coordination” with the New Mexico Environment Department would ensure water quality.

Sedillo Lopez asked why the bill couldn’t wait until the 60-day session, but was reminded by Stefanics that discussion was limited to the amendment.

From left, State Engineer Mark Hamman, Environment Secretary James Kenney, and Rebecca Roose, senior infrastructure advisor to the Governor, present Senate Bill 292, a bill to create a strategic water supply program, to the Senate Conservation Committee, Wednesday, February 14, 2024. The committee moved the bill on to the Senate Finance Committee with no recommendation. (Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

The committee voted 5-3 to move it forward. Sens. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque) and Republican David Gallegos from Eunice voted against it.

After her “yes,” vote, Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las Cruces) asked for the agencies to meet with groups that expressed concerns.

“Because I do believe that there are legitimate concerns and apprehensions,” Hamblen said.

Cervantes said the “no recommendation” undermines the committee’s authority on being experts in water, environment and energy.

“When we send out something with a no recommendation, it’s like me saying ‘we don’t know what to think, and we’re gonna have somebody else thinking about it more than we do,’” he said. “I think that’s a mistake.

Stefanics told Source New Mexico that moving the bill off the table was “not frequent” but not unprecedented, noting that two other bills, including one on cloud-seeding were brought for a second hearing.

After the committee vote, she said she does not believe the amended bill addresses all of the concerns.

“I think that there are many things about this that are hopeful for the future, in terms of projects. But I think there’s big question marks,” Stefanics said.

Further, she added that she wanted to balance “being conservative about water,” and moving the bill ahead.

“That’s why I offered the “no recommendation” option,” Stefanics said. “We don’t usually do a ‘no rec,’ if [Senate Finance Committee] wants to do it, they will, otherwise it will just sit in finance.”

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