August 12, 2022

Controversial Augustin Plains Ranch water project legal battles continue

Laura Paskus

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

The legal battles in a controversial water project are continuing as the state’s Court of Appeals remanded it back to district court.

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC sued the state engineer after the office rejected a proposal to pump 54,000 acre feet of water annually from an aquifer in southwestern New Mexico and pipe it hundreds of miles away to Albuquerque area customers.

Related: NM water boss dismisses Augustin Plains Ranch water application as ‘speculative’

The Court of Appeals found that the district court had erred in applying what is known as collateral estoppel. Collateral estoppel is a legal doctrine intended to stop endless litigation. If something has already been litigated, it cannot be brought back.

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC applied multiple times for the permit from the Office of the State Engineer.

When a 2007 application was denied, the company sued the state engineer. The court upheld the state engineer’s decision, which left open the possibility that Augustin Plains Ranch LLC could file subsequent applications.

In 2014, the company filed another application, which was denied. The company again sued and the district court found that this Augustin Plains Ranch LLC’s lawsuit was not allowed because it had already been litigated.

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

But the Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that the company could bring the case back to the court.

In the case, Augustin Plains Ranch was told to reapply and it did so by filing an updated application. The court ruling states that this “was not an attempt to circumvent the State Engineer’s procedures, nor the district court’s previous final judgment.”

“Based on the prior determination by the district court that Applicant could file a new application that addressed the facial insufficiencies of the 2007 Application, Applicant’s more robust 2014 Application in response, and our deference to the State Engineer’s policy that applications for permits for underground waters may be corrected, we hold that the district court abused its discretion in applying collateral estoppel to the 2014 Application,” the court ruling states.

The district court will have the ability to review the state engineer’s decision once again and the appellate court expressed no opinion on the decision to deny the application.