August 4, 2017

Rural residents continue decade-long battle against San Augustin Ranch water project

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Laura Paskus

Near the town of Magdalena, signs protest the proposed San Augustin Ranch water project

Driving on Highway 60 across the Plains of San Agustin, it’s easy to dwell on the past. The floor of the valley cradled a lake during the Pleistocene, and windmills and stock tanks fleck the green expanse that stretches for some 50 miles, west of Magdalena and toward the Gila National Forest.

But it’s not the past Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand is worried about. It’s the future.

A decade ago, her brother and father spotted a legal notice in the newspaper announcing that the ranch next door planned to drill 37 wells into the aquifer that provides water for the area. The Hands were not happy to learn about the new wells, which they feared would deplete their own.  “My dad has spent most of his life building up what he has,” Hand said. “He looks out there, sees all the work he’s done in his 84 years might be for nothing because in the stroke of a pen it can all be taken away.”

After doing some calculations, the men were shocked to realize their neighbor’s proposal called for moving 17 billion gallons of groundwater out of the basin—annually.

Bruno Modena of Italy bought the 18,000-acre ranch in the 1960s. Since then, it had been leased to another rancher, but now, the owners had bigger plans: Augustin* Plains Ranch, LLC wanted to build a pipeline and pump 54,000 acre-feet of water each year from the aquifer to the Albuquerque area.

Now in its third iteration, the application is pending once again before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. New Mexico’s waters, below- and aboveground, belong to the public and are held in trust by the government. The rights to those waters can be bought, like property. They can also be transferred or forfeited if they’re not being used. To buy or transfer water rights, people or companies have to show the water will be put to “beneficial use.”

So far, the company hasn’t proven beneficial use, nor shown who will buy the water.

According to its application, the company plans to sell water commercially in seven counties and to state and federal agencies. It also says it will provide water for Magdalena, Socorro, Belen, Los Lunas, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. No buyers are identified, though the application includes a 2014 letter from Rio Rancho City Manager Keith Riesberg who wrote that if it’s successful, the city would be “interested in discussing” moving water into the city’s system. Others towns, like Magdalena and Socorro, are actively fighting the project.

Hand, who is a Republican, is worried that if the state approves the project, it will open the door for private companies to make money off public water—water that belongs to the people of New Mexico.

Who can do something?

Augustin Plains Ranch Project Director Michel Jichlinski was traveling and unavailable for an interview but provided a short statement. “New Mexico and the American West need to develop more sustainable and environmentally sound water resources such as this project,” he said. “We’re confident it will be a trailblazer to a better future.”

In a document provided to NM Political Report, the company says it plans to pump just one-thousandth of the estimated 54 million-acre feet of water stored within the aquifer. That estimate comes from a 1994 report.

“Concerning the basin ‘drying up,’ it is a very dry area to begin with,” according to the document. “The aquifer is several hundred feet deep. Plant and wildlife in the plains are supported by rainfall, not by the aquifer.” It also says ranches and farms in the area will not be affected: “The plains themselves are sparsely populated and there aren’t many operating wells.”

If other people’s wells affected and an “alternative solution” can be found, the company says it will pay for that. If there’s no feasible solution, according to the company, “it is called impairment and the project cannot proceed.”

The company’s statement doesn’t satisfy state Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena. She said no one will know if their wells have been “impaired”—or dried up—until after pumping is already underway. “By that time, it’s too late,” she said.

“Someone has got to stand up and make a decision on this,” she said. That would be the State Engineer, a position held by Tom Blaine since late 2014 when Gov. Susana Martinez appointed him to replace Scott Verhines. “It’s just a big mess,” Armstrong said of the proposal.

Blaine should deny the application, Armstrong said, in part because the company still doesn’t name an “end user” for the water it’s planning to pump out of the aquifer. “In the meantime, all of my constituents are having sleepless nights,” she said. “They’re restless, wondering, ‘Should we sell our place? Should we drill another well? What do we do?’”

After repeated requests to speak with state experts, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer responded “this is a pending issue before the State Engineer so it is not appropriate for our office to discuss this matter.”

Third time’s the charm?

In July, the Office of the State Engineer canceled a pre-hearing scheduling conference without explanation. In an email obtained by NM Political Report through the state Inspection of Public Records Act, the hearing officer explained to other staffers that it wouldn’t be rescheduled “due to the complexity and near impossibility for all to attend.”

Attorneys at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents local ranchers, residents and the Gila Conservation Coalition in their protests against the application, said the state is supposed to issue a procedural order soon. That order will lay out the process, deadlines and issues that need to be addressed. They also believe the hearing officer plans to schedule public meetings in Albuquerque and Socorro.

The Environmental Law Center said there aren’t any substantive changes within the new application that distinguish it from the one rejected by then-State Engineer Scott Verhines in 2012. At that time, the agency called it “speculative” and said the company failed to say who would buy the water from the company. Augustin Plains Ranch appealed the denial and the issue wound its way through the courts until the company filed a second application. Verhines rejected that one in November 2014.

Later that year, company president Rich Radice filed a third application. That’s the one still pending before the Office of the State Engineer.

Each time the company submitted its application, hundreds of people in Catron and Socorro counties filed formal protests to the application.

The original tally of protestants included about 1,000 people. In early 2017, the state’s list included 604 “timely protestants.” That drop in numbers may be due to confusion over the $25 fee people must pay when protesting an application being considered by the state.

Several tribal governments, federal agencies, acequia associations and local governments in Socorro and Catron counties have also formally opposed the project.

Like Hand, Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, worries what approval of the application could mean not just for local residents, but other rural New Mexicans.

“The main thing to understand is that if this can happen to an area like the San Agustin Basin, then it can happen elsewhere in the state,” Meiklejohn said. “In terms of the possible precedent, it’s a case that’s important for all rural areas of the state.”

‘We’re all kind of stuck’

Carol Pittman and her husband Ray have lived about a mile east of Datil for more than 20 years on land that borders the Augustin Plains Ranch. She and some others created the San Augustin Water Coalition, which they incorporated in 2008 to formally protest the application.

“Ranchers don’t know if they’ll have water for their ranches and residents don’t know if they’ll have water for drinking,” she said. “Nothing can happen here while this is hanging over our heads. We’re all kind of stuck.”

Pittman said the company’s lack of communication with community members has been its “biggest stumbling block” over the past decade.

“They came up with this project and announced it, but they didn’t talk to anybody about it, so when they did—and had that big meeting in Magdalena, where they were just telling them about the project and not asking—people really got razzed,” she said. “If they had started out by talking with people, or asking people to be coming up with different ideas. Instead, it hardened everybody’s resolve to get rid of them.”

She also wonders why people outside the basin aren’t paying attention to what’s happening. Rural people feel overlooked, she said—exploited for their resources instead of being supported for the work they do.

“Because we’re so few in number, politicians tend to overlook us because our votes don’t add up to a whole lot for them, and maybe our issues just aren’t as interesting to them as urban issues are,” she said. “Though, I guess it’s partly our fault too, we like being isolated, we like what we do here, and we like being left alone.”

*Geologically, the area is the Plains of San Agustin or the Valley of San Agustin. The ranch, however, is spelled differently: Augustin Plains Ranch.

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