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Op-Ed: Legislators Favor Special Interests over Public Interests

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By Aubrey Dunn, Commissioner of Public Lands

In an effort to protect one of our country’s largest and most important sources of drinking water, I adopted a policy earlier this year to curtail usage of drinking water from the Ogallala aquifer for oil and gas production, specifically the process of hydraulic fracturing.

I remain a proponent of hydraulic fracturing for the advances it has allowed in energy development in New Mexico and the increased revenue that it has helped to bring to our state; however, as it relates to the use of our state’s natural resources, I believe in responsible conservation.  

Subsequently, I have been sued by a State Land Office permittee who has made millions of dollars selling drinking water for oil and gas related activities and I have been publicly vilified by some members of the New Mexico State Legislature.

The Ogallala is a shallow water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains with portions in eight states, including eastern New Mexico, and provides nearly all the fresh water for residential, industrial and agricultural use.

The aquifer is currently being depleted because little of it is replaced by recharge from rainwater and snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. At the current rate of water use, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades. Once pumped dry, experts have expressed serious concerns that the aquifer could take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall.  

It is safe to say that the future of our water supply is in crisis, which is why I am deeply disappointed in the actions of certain state legislators who have sided against the State Land Office in favor of one man – Mr. Ray Westall – who is making money on the backs of New Mexico’s schoolchildren. In fact, Mr. Westall owes the State Land Office nearly $1.4 million in unpaid water rentals. The sole beneficiary of these unpaid rentals are public schools, and Mr. Westall should be ashamed of himself for not paying what he owes to our school kids.

On Oct. 13, the State Land Office was invited to testify before the Water and Natural Resources Committee about our water policy and watershed reclamation and remediation program. Unbeknownst to me and my team, Mr. Westall had filed a lawsuit against the State Land Office the day before. Curiously, many members of the committee were already in the know about the lawsuit.  

To make matters worse, Mr. Westall had been invited to testify alongside my deputy commissioner at the behest of State Rep. Yvette Herrrell, who just two weeks before had received a $2,500 campaign contribution from Mr. Westall. Apparently, the $2,500 gave him access and bought him the opportunity to answer questions about the lawsuit that we knew nothing about and therefore could not respond.  

At a more recent legislative committee meeting held on Oct. 26, two interim Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee members – State Rep. Larry Larrañaga and State Sen. Carroll Leavell – blasted me for protecting and conserving drinking water and for charging market rates for rights-of-way which led to a small fee increase for energy companies. Clearly, they weren’t interested in the $2 billion the State Land Office has earned under my watch, most of which supports public education.

The fact that these legislators value and favor special interests over fresh drinking water or the health of our kids is egregious. In doing so, they threaten the sustainability of the State Land Trust, the Land Grant Permanent Fund and the future of New Mexico.

No fake news here.