When Carol Pittman heard that New Mexico’s top water official denied a company’s application to pump groundwater from below the valley where she lives, she was thrilled. “What could be better?” she said. “That project would have just destroyed the place.”
For 11 years, Pittman and her neighbors fought plans by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to pump 54,000 acre feet of water each year from the aquifer below the Valley of San Agustin.* That wide, dramatic valley lies west of the Rio Grande Valley and is flanked by volcanic fields and mountains. Most of the valley is in Catron County, whose total population tops out at about 3,500 people. For more than 20 years, Pittman and her husband have lived near the community of Datil, on land that borders the Augustin Plains Ranch.
Almost 100 people packed into the Catron County Courthouse in Reserve, N.M. last week for a hearing about plans to pump groundwater from beneath the Plains of San Agustin in southwestern New Mexico. Augustin* Plains Ranch, LLC wants to pump 54,000 acre-feet of water—more than 17 billion gallons—each year from the aquifer and pipe it to commercial or municipal water customers hundreds of miles away. The state has rejected similar applications from the company twice. Now, a third application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. The final decision will lie with the State Engineer, a position currently held by Tom Blaine, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez three years ago.
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.