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State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn says he’s returned $4,500 in political contributions he received from a New Mexico company and its principal officer who filed a lawsuit against him over a policy to protect the Ogallala Aquifer.

Ray Westall and his company, Loco Hills Water Disposal, made the campaign contributions in 2014, then last week filed a lawsuit against Dunn alleging the policy aimed at curbing how much drinking water oil and gas producers can take from the Ogallala for fracking is usurping water rights that span 50 years.

Westall and co-plaintiff Steve Carter Inc. operate approximately 25 active water wells on State Trust Lands in Lea County and are permitted by the New Mexico State Engineer to produce 2,492 acre-feet – or 812 million gallons – of drinking water per year to service the oil and gas industry.

Dunn also said Westall owes the State Land Office nearly $1.4 million in unpaid water rentals, saying the sole beneficiary of these unpaid rentals are public schools.

“Mr. Westall’s attack on me is self-serving and shortsighted,” said Dunn. “The oil and gas industry in general is abandoning the use of drinking water for industrial uses. There is technology to recycle produced water, and in fact the Oil Conservation Commission adopted a rule that promotes water conservation by encouraging the reuse and recycling of produced water.”

Under the policy that went into effect July 1, 2017, the State Land Office says it is phasing out water wells on State Trust Lands that involved the use of drinking water. Individuals are not prohibited from applying for an easement that might involve the use of drinking water for oil and gas production, although additional documentation and hydrologic reports are now required with all applications.

After review, Dunn will determine whether granting land access for a water well is in the best interests of the State Land Office and whether an easement should require the grantee to draw water from deeper, non-potable sources.

As an alternative, Dunn is suggesting industry drill into the Capitan Reef water aquifer for access to non-potable water. Due to its composition, that aquifer provides water that is highly mineralized, contains large quantities of saline, and is more suitable for oil and gas production.

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. At the current rate of water use, the State Land Office says the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades.

“The State Land Office is not for sale,” said Dunn. “I don’t make policy decisions based on what’s best for one person, I make policy decisions based on what’s best for New Mexico.

“Mr. Westall can take his campaign contributions and apply them to the $1.4 million he owes the school kids of New Mexico.”