Sandia LabNews

New Water attracts crowd to Hobbs meeting as demand, available technologies converge

‘New Water’ attracts crowd to Hobbs meeting as demand, available technologies converge

To Sandia’s Allan Sattler (6113) and Mike Hightower (6251), a forum in Hobbs, N.M., was successful because of a convergence of events. A five-year drought and the development of more efficient technologies for removing salt from water have combined to create an opportunity for New Mexico to develop "new water." While most of the attendees were concerned about the potential benefits and uses of this "new water" in New Mexico and West Texas, water shortage problems are national in scope and potential benefits reach far beyond state boundaries.

This new water isn’t really new, but it has long been ignored in New Mexico and elsewhere, the two researchers note. Water generated in association with the production of oil and gas has been more a nuisance than a potential benefit in the past. Water found in many water wells, high in salt, or brackish, has very often been passed by, with little information as to its character and extent recorded by drillers concerned mainly with developing freshwater supplies.

But times have changed. "We’re at the point where it is becoming economically feasible to use these brackish resources," says Mike, of the Labs’ Energy Infrastructure and Distributed Energy Resources Dept. 6251. "People need the water and it’s becoming cost-effective to treat."

Reading about communities and farmers in New Mexico with water problems has become too commonplace, says Allan, of Sandia’s Underground Storage Dept. 6113. "New Mexico has severe water problems, statewide in scope." Among cities expressing concern about future water supplies are Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Jal, Eunice, Chama, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, and Gallup.

These and other municipalities, running short of local freshwater supplies, face the possibility of piping water from other locations at much higher costs to meet demands. As desalination technology becomes competitive economically, however, it could be possible to use brackish or produced water to fill in some of the demand.

In Lea County, for example, developed oil fields produce an estimated 42 million gallons a day of water that is too salty for consumption and has some slight hydrocarbon content. "If you could treat that water for agriculture or industry, even if you could only use part of it, you’re still ahead," says Allan.

Knowing this, 150 interested participants showed up at a forum on produced and brackish water, held in Hobbs in late July. Sandia, along with a number of New Mexico organizations, sponsored the two-day event. "We were pleasantly surprised at the turnout," says Mike. "It was twice what we expected." The meeting featured 20 papers on various aspects of technology evaluations of the use of brackish or produced water in New Mexico and in West Texas.

Emphasis on coordination

"Everyone wanted to be there," says Mike. "We had participants from universities, oil and gas companies, municipalities, agriculture, mining, electric power, and other areas. They know the problems and they know the issues. There was a lot of emphasis and interest in coordinating the use of these nontraditional water resources." That led to the formation of a steering committee, with Mike and Allan along supporting the group.

Forum participants identified seven key issues and suggested organizing a steering group, with appropriate expertise, to address those problems. Three executive members, representing the petroleum industry, water resource researchers, and agriculture, were selected to help form the steering committee. The committee will include representatives from soil and water conservation districts, oil and gas organizations, the Municipal League and Association of Counties, business interests, research organizations, and regulatory agencies in the state.

Sandia’s role will be to provide technology evaluation support and to help integrate activities. Sandia will provide a statewide framework to integrate further work and funding opportunities, while keeping the national perspective in mind. The big picture, centered about addressing water shortage issues, reaches well beyond New Mexico and West Texas, Allan and Mike point out.

An example of one of the issues the group will have to address is eliminating jurisdictional conflicts, an effort needed to accelerate use on nontraditional water resources, says Mike. Right now a variety of state and federal agencies are involved in oversight of produced and brackish water. "We need to get the regulators to recognize the value of this water. In the past, it’s always been an environmental liability. Now it’s a potential asset, and they haven’t figured out how to best deal with that yet," says Allan.

Another primary focus of the group will be education of state and federal legislators as well as the public. "Science can do a lot in this area, but without an institutional base of support, it’s not going to go anywhere," says Allan.

Experience-based support

Sandia is an ideal advisor for the group for a number of reasons, Mike says. The Labs are by no means new to the issues, the technologies, or the current efforts to move desalination forward. Sandia has experience in the field of brackish water

engineering from its work in geothermal drilling, salt geochemistry, and geoscience capabilities. These capabilities were developed for projects at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, near Carlsbad; the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, on the US Gulf Coast; and at a variety of environmental projects involving groundwater characterization and treatment. "We have a lot to add," says Allan.

In addition, Tom Hinkebein of Geochemistry Dept. 6118 helped coordinate the development and completion of a national desalination technology roadmap last year with the Bureau of Reclamation. The roadmap has been reviewed by the National Research Council and will form the basis for a national desalination research program for the next 20 years.

Also, Congress approved funding for the design and construction of a national desalination research facility near Alamogordo, in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. Groundbreaking for the facility, which is strongly supported by Sandia, is scheduled for December, says Mike. "Sandia has had a major role in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation to develop a vision and goals for this facility. Sandia is expected to have a continuing major role in the oversight of the operations and research at the facility," Mike says.

New Mexico is a good place to be for desalination research, Allan and Mike agree. "We have good technical resources in our universities and national labs as well as extensive brackish water resources and pressing water supply needs. Why shouldn’t we be a leader in desalination?" Mike asks. From New Mexico’s experience, the word can be expected to spread quickly. The potential use of desalination technologies in the US is widespread. All but about four or five of the states have brackish surface or groundwater resources that could be put to beneficial use.

Internationally, the potential is even higher. "Increasing demand for limited water resources is a major international issue in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and China," says Mike. "All these areas are seeing conflicts over scarce freshwater resources. If we can solve issues in New Mexico and the Southwest in utilizing nontraditional water resources, such as brackish and impaired waters, we may be able to help these countries improve utilization of nontraditional or impaired water supplies and help reduce future conflicts over water. It may be an important step in helping us foster peace in the world."