The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has funded Sandia National Laboratories to develop a decision support tool that aids BLM’s role of sustainably managing water resources in Southeast New Mexico in the context of increasing water demand for oil and gas extraction.


Advancements in directional drilling and well completion technologies have resulted in an exponential growth in the use of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction. Within the Bone Springs Formation of the New Mexico Permian Basin, which is the dominant play in the region, water demand to complete each hydraulically fractured well is estimated to average 7.3 acre-feet (2.4 million gallons), resulting in an increase to the regional water demand of over 5000 acre-feet per year. This has created concern as to the region’s ability to meet the increased water demand in a manner that fulfills BLM’s role of protecting human health and the environment while sustainably meeting the needs of the variety of water users and other stakeholders in the region.


The scientific challenge is bringing together disparate data in a manner that exposes the temporal and spatial dynamics of the water supply sources in the context of increasing demands and changing policy and management scenarios. To meet this challenge, this project uses a multi-disciplinary approach that synthesizes data collection, field verification, and system dynamics modeling to identify risks to water sustainability and develop alternatives to mitigate those risks. Field verification and testing activities are used to evaluate existing borehole data to insure that the data are accurate and up to date. Water samples are taken to characterize the source water quality and chemistry and are used with other data in the region to develop correlations between depth to water, water chemistry, and source formation.

The data are summarized into a conceptual model that describes the inflows, outflows, and storage mechanisms of the region’s water resources. Conceptual models provide users with a visual map of the dynamic relationships between the various water sources, the primary uses of the water from each source, and how each source may be exploited to support hydraulic fracturing. The conceptual model is the framework from which mathematical representations of the dynamics are ‘hung’ and the system dynamics (SD) decision support model is built. The SD model simulates the increase in drilling activity and water demand relative to each formation and water source to identify the areas/users/formations that are most vulnerable and estimates the risk to water sustainability. The model also performs cost/benefit analyses for each management and future demand scenario.

The project is scheduled for completion in December, 2017.