Journalism in the Public Interest

Message from Mexico: U.S. Is Polluting Water It May Someday Need to Drink

Mexico City is planning to draw drinking water from a mile-deep aquifer, challenging U.S. policy that water far underground can be intentionally polluted because it will never be used.

Mexico City's mayor and general director of the country's National Water Commission watch as a geologist takes a drink of water from an exploratory well into an aquifer underneath Mexico City, on Jan. 23, 2013. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo)

Mexico City plans to draw drinking water from a mile-deep aquifer, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The Mexican effort challenges a key tenet of U.S. clean water policy: that water far underground can be intentionally polluted because it will never be used.

U.S. environmental regulators have long assumed that reservoirs located thousands of feet underground will be too expensive to tap. So even as population increases, temperatures rise, and traditional water supplies dry up, American scientists and policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.

As ProPublica has reported in an ongoing investigation about America's management of its underground water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions. Frequently, the reason was that the water lies too deep to be worth protecting.

But Mexico City's plans to tap its newly discovered aquifer suggest that America is poisoning wells it might need in the future.

Indeed, by the standard often applied in the U.S., American regulators could have allowed companies to pump pollutants into the aquifer beneath Mexico City.

For example, in eastern Wyoming, an analysis showed that it would cost half a million dollars to construct a water well into deep, but high-quality aquifer reserves. That, plus an untested assumption that all the deep layers below it could only contain poor-quality water, led regulators to allow a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into the underground reservoirs.

But south of the border, worsening water shortages have forced authorities to look ever deeper for drinking water.

Today in Mexico City, the world's third-largest metropolis, the depletion of shallow reservoirs is causing the ground to sink in, iconic buildings to teeter, and underground infrastructure to crumble. The discovery of the previously unmapped deep reservoir could mean that water won't have to be rationed or piped into Mexico City from hundreds of miles away.

According to the Times report, Mexican authorities have already drilled an exploratory well into the aquifer and are working to determine the exact size of the reservoir. They are prepared to spend as much as $40 million to pump and treat the deeper water, which they say could supply some of Mexico City's 20 million people for as long as a century.

Scientists point to what's happening in Mexico City as a harbinger of a world in which people will pay more and dig deeper to tap reserves of the one natural resource human beings simply cannot survive without.

"Around the world people are increasingly doing things that 50 years ago nobody would have said they'd do," said Mike Wireman, a hydrogeologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues.

Wireman points to new research in Europe finding water reservoirs several miles beneath the surface — far deeper than even the aquifer beneath Mexico City — and says U.S. policy has been slow to adapt to this new understanding.

"Depth in and of itself does not guarantee anything — it does not guarantee you won't use it in the future, and it does not guarantee that that it is not" a source of drinking water, he said.

If Mexico City's search for water seems extreme, it is not unusual. In aquifers Denver relies on, drinking water levels have dropped more than 300 feet. Texas rationed some water use last summer in the midst of a record-breaking drought. And Nevada — realizing that the water levels in one of the nation's largest reservoirs may soon drop below the intake pipes — is building a drain hole to sap every last drop from the bottom.

"Water is limited, so they are really hustling to find other types of water," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's kind of a grim future, there's no two ways about it."

In a parched world, Mexico City is sending a message: Deep, unknown potential sources of drinking water matter, and the U.S. pollutes them at its peril.

American culture is so bankrupt and perverse. Enough, with the lawn-care, the pollution, the bullying international policies such as this one!

Even if not the drinking water itself, that water almost certainly nourishes something, and poisoning that can produce all sorts of indirect effects that we can’t track.

But hey, we can’t see it, so it must be fine.

How does the cost of digging down to a deep aquifer compare to the cost of desalinization of ocean water? ‘Cause apparently, we’re going to have a lot more of that in the coming years…

Why aren’t we building more desalination plants on all coasts? Mexico need them also. Tectonics may have some influence on the process, but if large hotels can be built, even more desalination plants on every coastal area should be part of the planning process, shouldn’t it?

Excellent reporting…Mentioned above…‘American culture is so bankrupt’ ..I question if it is the people/culture or the power of Washington and power the Corportions…We should not be poisioning anything…We need to change directions…Sadly it is a revolving door with Corprate Executives in Chemical companies and heads of Regulations/Depts….Sadly, many of them are so unethical and profit motivated they get up in the morning a screw their socks on before going to their Washington office.

Injection zone aquifers are almost always saline with extremely high levels of TDS’s and not suitable for human consumption. Look at a map of US freshwater aquifers and overlay on that a map of US saline aquifers … freshwater aquifers nearly always sit over saline aquifers. Once again ProPublica has constructed an incomplete picture of the world to suit the message the author wants to convey to the reader.

Additionally, all aquifers that disposal wells inject into have to be analyzed and characterized. Can the author cite even one example of a deep well disposal site that injects material into water that could be categorized as potable or potentially with filtration and sanitation?

By law, injection wells must have TDS’s (total dissolved solids) in excess of 10,000mg/L. A TDS concentration of 10,000mg/L is equivalent to sea water. Its not drinking water, no matter how much the author might try and convince the reader otherwise.

After reading this article, I’m itching to watch “Tank Girl”.

This is an opportunity for the United States Government to apply leverage in negotiations with the Mexican Government regarding their criminal exportation businesses.  Mexican drugs are polluting the young people of America.  Mexico keeps the majority of it’s citizens well below the poverty level because Mexico wants a cheap labor force that allows it to compete internationally and thus forces many unfortunates to look for a better life elsewhere.  Mexico must be forced to take responsibility for it’s own citizens and it’s economy.  Radio active water might get their attention.  Maybe this is a way to control Mexico’s blatant government CORRUPTION?

The new US policy toward relying on the Middle East for petro fuels: make water so valuable that we won’t give a damn about the cost of oil!  And its a duel pronged strategy.  First, frack to free up oil on our soil so as to increase the global supply thereby driving down the price (or at least put price leverage more in our hands).  Second, support fracking with water from deep wells, then send the polluted fracking water to underground reservoirs. That way when we have exhausted our surface supply, our ground water will already be despoiled. Bingo, price of water goes up as price of oil goes down.  Water will be the root of war for my grandchildren that oil has been in my lifetime.  To think, the Mexicans are ahead of us on this issue.  This is how we go the way of the Mayans and the Incas.  We seemed determined to do ourselves in in pursuit of energy, preferably energy from fossil fuels. What a world!

Here is a link that was confidential back in the day about injection wells and drinking water pollution.

It appears that one of the commentors is either a shill for the industry or somehow profited by the destruction of the environment! I guess he never heard of Love Canal which used the best technology of the time! Try 3 stage treatment as a start! Look at the issue in Flagstaff Az.where the treated sewage being sprayed on a ski hill is yellow and also the failure to remove pharmacudicals from seweage!

This severe water shortage—- experts gritting their teeth because we’re near the tipping point—- and we’re going balls-to-the-wall for FRACKING!? To quoteFiresign Theater, “Oh, my white brother…”

Sometimes I cry for America.

@Kim Feil - Thank you for the link. From the Background Page near the very top of the document, it appears that the saline aquifers are created/contaminated by fracking itself. Did I get the correct message?

@bill kates - I think we’ll see a lot fewer drugs smuggled into the US, what with cannabis legalization on a roll. It’s astounding to know that I, since I live in Colorado, can step outside and legally (more or less?) light up a joint! In other words, don’t worry about Mexico and her wa-wa.

Abrahm Lustgarten

Jan. 25, 2013, 6:34 p.m.

As the author of this article, I’d like to clarify in response to the comments made by Mike H, who asks whether one example can be cited.

You may wish to read this article:( )

It is about aquifer exemptions, and cites more than 1,500 specific cases that match the criteria you are looking for. Each one is legally defined as a source of drinking water, using your definition cited above.

Here is another article that goes into more detail about one of those examples:

What’s this? Another scare tactic justifying Cap and Trade? I’m all for a clean environment and we should have eliminated oil use decades ago. Whether you look at it with creation or evolution eyes, we were given plenty of resources to sustain ourselves cleanly. We just have to develop the technology and need the money in the economy, not in the tax man’s pocket, to do it with. While we are at it, we can figure out how to clean up any messes that we have made previously.

Caleb Williams

Jan. 25, 2013, 9:22 p.m.

We would have 40% more water IMMEDIATELY if we stopped using it to carry away human waste.  Before Thomas Crapper invented the flush system, we used dry technology for thousands of years.  Switching back to dry technology would create many jobs.

Mike H.  Then please explain the salt dome collapse in Louisiana.  Texas Brine has used this location for years….except that the “best laid plans” appear to be failing.  Natural gas and oil in sinkhole that has been growing since Aug 2012.  Never heard about?  Ask the Gov. why????

The rich people polluting it won’t ever have to drink it, so they don’t care, and sadly, neither do Americans, who are narcissistic and naive and apathetic about everything.

As long as it rains and super-wealthy or hereditary thugs are not leading most of the geo-political lucrative things, there will never ever be any shortage of pure drinking water and not even other highly important minerals such as ever-auto-recycling fuel, gas etc..
Nothing is going out of our planet and nothing is coming in from another star except solar rays.
So, no worries!
Sun will still shine, Ocean water will still evaporate, Rivers of rain drop will still flow and human body will recover from Nuclear rediation!

.@Mike H. You make some interesting points.  In your opinion, are disposal wells / injection zones indispensable?  I am surprised to learn that these facilities are so widely used, to begin with.

Setting aside of the political back and forth.  Is there a consensus that the US does or does not have a potential water shortage problem.  If so, should this be a local or national problem.  Will it or won’t it affect the overall economic functioning of the country.

  Here in TX - from the State gov’t perspective - water shortage is a problem.  The AG is threatening 2 States:  NM and OK over water treaties, and they are also threatening MX.  It is also considering NO water for rice growers.  Locally, my city is taking action with some desalination, some recycling of waste water and out-door watering restrictions. 

    So wow, if TX is sounding an alarm - maybe other states should do the same.  For all I know, they are - but that information doesn’t appear to be making any news outside of state boundaries.

@ Abrahm Lustgarten: Thank you for the reply. In light of your claim not too long ago that the state of New Mexico and Colorado documented more than a thousand cases of water contamination via hydraulic fracturing that was investigated by David Kopel who called the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and told him that threre were in fact zero “documented” cases of groundwater contamination I cannot take it on faith that there were 1,500 groundwater sources that matched the SDWA’s criteria and were allowed exemptions for waste injection. The article you linked to does not cite one, let alone 1500 cases.  Do you have documentation of these 1500 cases … say their applications for aquifer exemptions, so we can see if the reality of the situation matches what is being presented in this series?

One specific example caugfht my attention. You claimed that in Colorado “More than a dozen exemptions are in waters that might not even need to be treated in order to drink.”. Are you saying that the EPA made an exemption for 12 injection wells whose aquifer was so clean it meets the SDWA’s criteria for all contaminants?

That is a rather terrific claim, and it’s like they say terrific claims need terrific evidence.

Mike H wrote of Mr. Lustgarten, “In light of your claim not too long ago that the state of New Mexico and Colorado documented more than a thousand cases of water contamination via hydraulic fracturing…”, in a weak attempt to undermine Mr. Lustgarten’s current work. 

While Mr. Lustgarten might certainly want to step in on this, my memory is that Mr. Lustgarten did absolutely nothing of the sort.

Rather, he wrote (back in 2008?), that there were more than a thousand documented cases of groundwater contamination that have resulted from, and are associated with, the entire extraction process of drilling and fracturing, which included spills, accidents, illegal disposal, leaking waste flow back pits and such.

It is the pro shale gas extraction PR firms, and certain people who profit from the process, that wish to misrepresent the danger, and contamination, that is virtually inherent to the entire extraction process, by reducing everything to the moment of hydraulic fracture, which is only being exposed to in depth study, as I write.

Mr. Lustgarten’s article was crystal clear about that difference.

If one reads the whole article, it becomes even more clear that Mr. Lustgarten is portraying water contamination incidents resulting from the entire process associated with the coal bed methane, and shale gas extraction process.  The title of the article, alone, sets the stage for the content of the article.  Remember, Mr. Lustgarten wrote this over four years ago.  If it were not for the author, and ProPublica, this issue might have remained, “buried secrets”, and the discussion, and research, would have been all the poorer, as a result.

Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies?
November 13, 2008

“…An investigation by ProPublica, which visited Sublette County and six other contamination sites, found that water contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts…

The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply. In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells…”

I am trying to show others about some of what I see, as I learn. What are some major points like in Gasland I should bring up as key points to peak peoples interest? Fracing- yes Water pollution-yes   I just dont want to seem to extreme, micro-focusing to early in conversation! Thanks any and everyone
Thank You to Abrahm Lustgarten for opening my eyes!

@ James Barth

The impression the author is making is that HF was responsible for more than 1,000 case of contamination. The association he is making is “crystal clear”.

@ Mike H

Your interpretation, the “impression” you infer, is uniquely subjective, and what you are stating, is misrepresentation at the highest level.  You seem to suffer a depraved indifference to the written English word.

@ James Barth

I’m hardly alone with my criticism on this particular topic.

Its called a bait and switch. Talk at great length about hydraulic fracturing then quickly move the conversation to gas drilling in general and accidents associated with it and never bother to let the reader know.

Mike H, I’m sure you are “hardly alone with your criticism”, as I imagine virtually every lessor, ANGA, and EID, employee would chime in to support you.  Money talks?

Still, English, is English, and words matter.  I’m sorry you seem to think that people are so dim witted as to be confused, when the words themselves, are plain.

This is America and there’s profits to be made and we are not going to stop polluting water underground that you cant even see and from the picture above you can see its dirty when it comes out of the ground. What American wants to drink that water?

I agree with John “Even if not the drinking water itself, that water almost certainly nourishes something, and poisoning that can produce all sorts of indirect effects that we can’t track.”

But, it cannot b fine because water is the most precious thing on earth and it’s necessary for all to live. Many water conservation organization give messages on hold to all about water storage and the importance of drinking water in future.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Injection Wells

Injection Wells: The Hidden Risks of Pumping Waste Underground

Injection wells used to dispose of the nation’s most toxic waste are showing increasing signs of stress as regulatory oversight falls short and scientific assumptions prove flawed.

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