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.
Turning off I-25, south of Truth or Consequences, drivers head west through long, open stretches of creosote bush and honey mesquite. On stormy days the scent of rain on that Chihuahuan desert scrub sneaks its way into cars and trucks, even through closed windows. It’s only a 30-minute drive from the interstate to Hillsboro, but the trip is reminder that small communities in the southwestern part of the state still have a close relationship with the land—and with history. Only about 100 people live in Hillsboro, which today includes a smattering of houses and galleries, a post office and the General Store and Cafe on the south side of Percha Creek. But at its peak in the 1880s, the town was more than 10 times that size.
In its final report on how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is affecting water supplies, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency said the common oil and gas drilling technology can, in fact, contaminate drinking water supplies. The report was released earlier this week. New Mexico has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. And while the practice has received more public attention in recent years, companies have used the technology here for decades. During the process, operators inject wells with chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ethanol, sodium chloride and trimethylbenzene.