New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting
April 13, 2018

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Protecting New Mexico’s Buried Treasure: a Summary of Groundwater Quality Protection in New Mexico

Dennis M McQuillan

New Mexico Environment Department, 1190 St. Francis Drive, PO Box 5469, Santa Fe, NM, 87502,

Groundwater is a vital resource for the residents of New Mexico. Approximately 95% of the state’s 2.1 million people depend on groundwater for all or part of their domestic water supply, including more than 300,000 people who rely on private domestic wells. Many farms, ranches and businesses also use wells for water supply. For more than a century, the Legislature and state and local governments have pioneered efforts to protect groundwater resources, and the health of citizens who drink groundwater.

Pressure decreases in the Roswell artesian basin aquifer were observed in 1904. The Territorial Legislature passed a law in 1905 requiring permits and logs for new wells in the basin, along with measurements of flow and pressure. Since 1910, water tables in the Mimbres Basin and Portales Valley have declined significantly. In response to the effects that groundwater development was having on streamflow and on the rights of other groundwater users, the State Legislature passed the Groundwater Code in 1931, granting the State Engineer authority to declare groundwater basins and appropriate water rights. Groundwater depletion, an ongoing issue in many areas of New Mexico, can reduce aquifer porosity and storage capacity, diminish well production, deteriorate water quality, and cause land subsidence.

In 1934, the infant death rate in New Mexico was 145 deaths per 1,000 live births, the highest in the nation and twice the national average, caused in part by dysentery and diarrheal illness from unsafe water supplies. The State Board of Public Health issued regulations in 1937 to prevent pollution of water resources, including wells. In 1947, the Legislature passed the Sanitary Projects Act which funded many improvements to water infrastructure that prevented groundwater pollution and waterborne illness.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, groundwater contamination with crude oil, nitrate, uranium mill waste, gasoline, tritium, and oil-field brine was documented in New Mexico. The Legislature amended the Oil and Gas Act in 1961 to protect fresh water. State public nuisance statutes enacted in 1963 prohibited the pollution of water, explicitly including springs and groundwater, and provided authority to require abatement. The pioneering N.M. Water Quality Act of 1967 led to the adoption of a comprehensive set of groundwater quality regulations, the first in the nation, that included a permitting program for discharges onto or below the surface of the ground, and numerical groundwater quality standards.

After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, numerous state and federal laws were passed that provided for groundwater quality protection. In New Mexico these additional laws included: Environmental Improvement Act (1971), Radiation Protection Act (1971), Pesticide Control Act (1973), Subdivision Act (1973), Utility Operators Certification Act (1973), Hazardous Waste Act (1977), Surface Mining Act (1979), Mine Dewatering Act (1980), Groundwater Protection Act (1990), Solid Waste Act (1990), Department of Environment Act (1990), Mining Act (1993), Natural Resources Trustee Act (1993), Voluntary Remediation Act (1997), Groundwater Storage and Recovery Act (1999), and Geothermal Resources Development Act (2016).

pp. 54

2018 New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting
April 13, 2018, Macey Center, New Mexico Tech campus, Socorro, NM