God must love Otero Mesa. Energy companies have found deposits of natural gas that grow larger with every media opportunity, beyond what even the Bush administration believes lies under the crusty soil. Environmentalists, not to be outdone, proclaim discovery of staggering volumes of potable water.
Farmers have been tapping the large Salt Basin aquifer, which underlies eastern Otero Mesa, since the '40s. Most of the aquifer is actually in Texas, where irrigation transformed Dell City into an agricultural oasis. El Paso, some 40 miles away, has been investing in the aquifer, as are billionaire Philip Anschutz and Woody Hunt, one of Bush's big fundraisers. Despite the risk of contamination, they've been strangely sanguine about the prospects for energy development—and financial enrichment—in the area.
Environmentalists are playing the water card to block the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from offering Otero Mesa for oil and gas leasing. They argue the BLM's plans will ruin the area's valuable aquifer. But environmentalists are making claims well beyond what even their own expert will back up.
Here's their position, straight from the "facts" section on the Coalition for Otero Mesa's website: "Conservative estimates show that without any recharge there is enough fresh potable water underlying Otero Mesa to serve a community of 1 million people for over 100 years." Steve Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (NMWA), recently repeated this statement in news stories about Attorney General Patricia Madrid's effort to enjoin the BLM from offering drilling leases.
This breathtaking claim caught the eye of Albuquerque hydrologist Michael Wallace. Wallace has no client in the oil and gas industry, nor any dog in the Otero Mesa fight. He simply wanted to understand this claim. So he requested supporting data. In all, he contacted NMWA three times, including speaking directly to Capra on a call-in radio talk show. Wallace was promised the information, but received nothing.
Feeling stonewalled, Wallace wrote a blistering op-ed in The Albuquerque Tribune accusing Capra of fudging numbers and hiding something. Capra issued no denials. After a month, Wallace phoned Capra who again promised to provide the supporting data.
Wallace's allegations caught my attention because I've repeated the coalition's claims myself. I e-mailed Capra requesting substantiation. Capra admitted he had nothing in writing. Capra said he got this estimate "off the record" from Sandia Labs hydrologist David Chace, who has studied Otero Mesa's water resources. Capra said the claim was "complex" because Chace—off the record—told him Otero Mesa had enough water for a million people for two hundred years, but indicated that the coalition's hydrologist, Steve Finch of Shomaker & Associates of Albuquerque, vetoed that figure because he felt "there was a conflict with Sandia doing such a study."
Only Capra alleges hearing Chace make these "off the record" statements (which Capra hasn't hesitated repeating on the record). Chace hasn't returned calls or released his study.
Capra suggested I contact Finch for clarification. I did. I asked if he had anything to do with the claim about Otero Mesa holding enough potable drinking water for a million people for 100 years. Finch's answer wasn't complex. He answered with a simple, "no."
Finch does not endorse Capra's figures. "It seems the calculations have been done on the back of an envelope," he said.
Wallace finally received the promised supporting data from Capra. But the claim that Otero Mesa holds enough water for one million people for 100 years appears nowhere in what he was given. The only estimates of any kind are in a talking points memo—not a hydrologist's report—that does not come close to Capra's claim.
The talking points, prepared by The Wilderness Society, state Otero Mesa holds water for a million people for 13 years, perhaps 40, if speculation proves true that Chace found a larger aquifer. That's a lot of water. So is the shortfall from Capra's public statements. It leaves one million New Mexicans awfully thirsty for six decades. Furthermore, the coalition's numbers aren't based on potable water, as their website claims, but include brackish water without distinction. Try drinking brackish water sometime. You'll appreciate the difference.
Aside from the controversy over energy development, Otero Mesa's groundwater could be a bargaining chip with Texas in our struggle to satisfy our perennial water debt. Texans have turned their end of the aquifer brackish from decades of irrigated farming. Finch says we've got the potable water on our undeveloped side of the border.
We once believed Albuquerque sat atop Lake Superior until the United States Geological Survey delivered the real facts. Sandia Labs should release its study. Then our Senators should get the U.S. Geological Survey to tell us just how strong a hand we might be holding. The truth about Otero Mesa's water is too important to leave to unsubstantiated claims and back-of-the-envelope guestimates.