Produced water challenges, opportunities in San Juan County discussed at watershed conference

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — Mike Hightower looked at dendrochronology — the study of tree rings — data to evaluate the cycles of arid periods and less arid periods in the Southwest. He said the arid cycles tend to coincide with civilizations abandoning cities, like the ancestral Puebloans leaving Mesa Verde.

Hightower, who is the program director of the New Mexico Produced Water Consortium, spoke about using non-traditional sources of water like produced water to supplement fresh water when he spoke during the Animas and San Juan Watersheds Week conference.

The annual conference is hosted by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute. In the past it has occurred at San Juan College, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic meant the meeting had to be conducted using Zoom.

Produced water is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is usually high in saline. The water is brought to the surface during extraction.

"This is something that's emerging," Hightower said about reusing produced water. "This is a new activity coordinated between New Mexico State (University) and New Mexico Environment Department based upon House Bill 546 from last year. So this is a new effort."

A filter skims solids out of produced water at Devon Energy's water recycling facility near Carlsbad on  Sept. 10, 2019.

In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to study the use of produced water. One goal is to have virtually all water used in oil and gas production come from produced water sources.

Another more controversial goal is to treat the produced water and use it in other settings, including, potentially, agriculture. Opponents of this practice express concern that chemicals used in fracking could potentially contaminate crops.

"One of the things that's driving the whole discussion around the use and reuse of nontraditional water resources is some of the climate change issues that we're seeing," he said.

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Hightower said that requires reviewing and addressing hundreds of standards for various constituents found in the water. However, if the produced water can be put to beneficial use, Hightower said it would help with the water shortages in the Southwest. 

Hightower plotted dendrochronology data for the last 2,000 years. He said the southwest is currently about 130 years into an arid cycle and has another 50 to 100 years to go before it starts to move out of that cycle.

"We're in probably the worst arid cycle that we've seen in the last 2,000 years," he said.

He said the arid cycle is hampering water resources and management. On top of that, the region has been experiencing drought since the year 2000.

Hightower said the drought has made water resources even more critical than before. That has prompted New Mexico, as well as other states, to look at ways of supplementing fresh water sources with other non-traditional waters.

The conference lasted most of the week and is in its fifth year. The annual event was sparked by the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 and originally presentations focused solely on the mine spill and the watershed recovery.

Since then, the topics have expanded to include the impacts of oil and gas and wildfire.

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In addition, this year New Mexico State University horticulturist Kevin Lombard presented on an experiment using biosolids to grow hybrid poplars. These biosolids come from municipal wastewater treatment facilities and are essentially dewatered sewage that has been composted.

But the tradition of looking at the impacts of the Gold King Mine spill remains a key part of the conference.

Shiprock Chapter House Farm Board Representative Joe Ben Jr., looks at corn on a farm, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, in Shiprock following the Gold King Mine spill.

Gaurav Jha from New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences presented on his studies of metals in the soils irrigated with water from the Animas River following the Gold King Mine spill.

He said the soils in some areas tested high for arsenic following the mine spill, but this arsenic was not in a form that was easy for plants to uptake. He said produce grown in those soils were safe for consumption and did not have high levels of arsenic.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at