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As Oil and Gas Drilling Competes for Water, One New Mexico County Says No

The Mora River upstream of Watrous in Mora County, New Mexico.  In an effort to protect its water sources, Mora County has banned oil and gas extraction on county land. Photo: J. N. Stuart/Flickr/cc
The Mora River upstream of Watrous in Mora County, New Mexico. In an effort to protect its water sources, Mora County has banned oil and gas extraction on county land. Photo: J. N. Stuart/Flickr/cc

In drought-plagued New Mexico, water is gold.

And this week, Mora County in the northern part of the state took a firm stand to protect its precious liquid:  it banned all oil and gas extraction from county lands.  It is believed to be the first county in the nation to take such action.

Big oil companies, notably Shell, had reportedly already leased more than 100,000 acres of land in Mora.

But the county’s new ordinance calls for a state constitutional amendment that puts community rights above corporate property rights.

Of concern in Mora, and increasingly throughout the country, is the potential harm to water sources from oil and gas drilling, including a practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process entails injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep underground so as to break up rocks and release the oil and gas they hold.

Because many wells cut through water-bearing formations called aquifers, fracking risks contaminating drinking water supplies with hazardous chemicals.  Yet fracking is exempt from compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Besides the threat of water contamination, fracking also competes for local water supplies. A single well can require more than 5 million gallons of water.

Across the United States, 47 percent of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells are being developed in highly water-stressed regions, according to a report released this week by Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit organization that educates investors about corporate environmental risks.

Colorado and Texas, two states where fracking operations have expanded rapidly, exhibited the highest degree of water risk, according to the Ceres report.  In Colorado, 92 percent of shale gas and oil wells were in “extremely high” water stress regions, defined as areas in which cities, industries and farms are already using 80 percent or more of available water.

In Texas, 51 percent of wells were in “high or extremely high” water stress regions.  In some Texas counties, water use for fracking accounted for more than one-fifth of total water use.

The Ceres study used well data available at FracFocus.org and water stress maps developed by the Aqueduct Project at the World Resources Institute.

While the hydraulic fracturing industry has made some progress toward use of recycled and saline water, which could reduce competition for scarce freshwater supplies, these sources are still a minor component of the overall industry’s water demand.  And even with use of alternative water sources, the risks of groundwater contamination from the chemicals used in fracking remain.

With hydraulically fractured gas and oil production projected to double in the coming years, the bottom line, according to Ceres, is that “competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors.”

But Mora County’s decision – to keep more climate-altering fossil fuels in the ground so as to preserve and safeguard local water supplies for its people – draws a more precautionary line in the sand.  It’s a line other counties may want to draw, too – because without adequate supplies of safe drinking water, no region’s future is bright.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.” She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.


  1. Lee__
    Rio Rancho, NM
    June 5, 2013, 6:32 pm

    I hope Jr says NO to big oil as he/she peddles a bike to work/vacation/etc……I have a feeling you’ll be within five miles of your home for the rest of your life.

  2. Ed Griffenberg
    Arlington, WA
    May 10, 2013, 11:40 am

    A friend of mine lives in Mora County, NM and she told me that water availability is amazingly low there. Her family’s property has a good well but her neighbor who sold off to developers who built several houses in a small community. Very few of them sold before the water dried up. Now most of them sit empty.

    • Sandra Postel
      May 10, 2013, 12:47 pm

      Thanks for this story, Ed. Yes, New Mexico is in the midst of a very bad drought, and there are many reports of dry acequias and creeks. Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley will likely face some severe water shortages this summer.

  3. Jr
    May 9, 2013, 12:41 pm

    I second that .glad this county is protecting its natural resources .say no to Big oil .

  4. randy verret
    Boulder, CO
    May 4, 2013, 2:16 pm

    You fail to mention that most projections show industry usage in Colorado, for example, to be about .08% of the total state water usage. I believe more water may be used to water golf courses than is (actually) consumed by the oil & gas industry. Water recycling efforts are well underway in many areas and in North Dakota, we are routinely using flood water rather than municipal or private sources. By the way, fracing was never included under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It has been extensively regulated by the various states, so that is a bit misleading. The sky really is not falling…

  5. KW Olson
    Welch,Mn.United States
    May 4, 2013, 11:06 am

    Hats off to the leaders and folk of Mora County