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.
For about a decade, tensions have flared over a proposed water project in southwestern New Mexico. Last year, Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC filed the third version of its application with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, requesting permission to pump 54,000 acre-feet—more than 17 billion gallons—of water each year from the aquifer and pipe it to the Albuquerque area. If approved, the company would draw water from 37 wells, all in sparsely-populated Catron County, near the town of Datil. But at a public meeting in Socorro Thursday night, the scene was subdued. Opponents of the proposed San Augustin Plains water project filled an auditorium at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and New Mexico State Police officers kept an eye on things inside and outside the Macey Center.
A few weeks ago, we reported on a proposal by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to build a pipeline and pump 54,000 acre-feet of water each year from the aquifer to the Albuquerque area. The 37 wells would all be in Catron County near the town of Datil. Now in its third iteration, the application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. In July, the state agency canceled a pre-hearing meeting. But last week, it released the application’s scheduling order, which includes information about the project and the process, as well as upcoming public meetings.
Like a town dance or charity dinner, Judge Jeff Shannon’s visits to Peñasco were announced in black movable letters on a marquee in front of the community center. Every other Friday, Shannon or the other magistrate judge in Taos County, Ernest Ortega, would drive through the mountains from their courthouse about 45 minutes to the north and hold court in Peñasco, an unincorporated community of nearly 600 people in the shadow of Jicarita Peak. While hardly ceremonious, the community center was practical. The judges could use the copy machine for free, and the building was a gathering place. Locals sometimes played pool while the judges held court equipped with little more than a box of files and rubber stamps, handling traffic citations and other minor offenses, saving at least a few residents of southern Taos County a 60-mile round-trip drive into town along wending forest roads.