They Keep Coming Back for the Plains of San Augustin Water

By KAY MATTHEWS

The Plains of San Augustin water grab is back. For the fourth time since 2007 Augustin Plains Ranch LLC has filed an application with the the Office of the State Engineer to transfer 54,000 acre feet per year (afy) from 37 wells from the Datil area of west-central New Mexico. Here’s the first paragraph of the latest legal notice, published in The New Mexican, Albuquerque Journal, and local newspapers on September 7, 2016:

“NOTICE is hereby given that on July 14, 2014, December 23, 2014 and again on April 28, 2016, Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, c/o Draper & Draper LLC, and Montgomery & Andrews, P.A., 325 Paseo del Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501 filed Corrected Application No. RG- 89943 with the STATE ENGINEER for Permit to Appropriate Groundwater in the Rio Grande Underground Water Basin of the State of New Mexico. The applicant proposes to divert and consume 54,000 acre-feet per annum from 37 proposed wells, proposed to be drilled to depth of 2,000 feet, with 20-inch casing, on land owned by the applicant located as follows; [the location of the proposed wells is then listed].”

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC first filed the transfer application in 2007, which was protested by approximately 80 individuals and groups represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. The OSE denied the application on March 30, 2012, basing its decision on state law that requires dismissal of any application that fails to specify any particular purpose or place of use of water or end user. The Ranch appealed the OSE’s decision in 2012 in the Catron County Seventh Judicial District Court, but the Court granted the protestants’ motion for summary judgment (Memorandum Decision) and on January 3, 2013 denied the Ranch’s appeal of the OSE decision to deny the water transfer. The Ranch then appealed this decision to the State Court of Appeals but also filed an amended application to the OSE in 2014 (in fact two applications, in July and December) while the case was still pending. Then the Ranch withdrew its appeal and made a motion to the Catron County Court that it remand the matter back to the OSE. The Court denied that motion on February 8, 2016, and closed the case. The 2014 amended applications were almost identical to the 2007 application and again failed to specify where the water would be transferred.

The latest “Corrected” application was filed on April 28, 2016 and published September 7, 2016. Once again the application fails to specify where or to whom the water will go. This is as specific as it gets:

“Said wells are generally located north and south of U.S. High-way 60, and east of Datil, Catron County, New Mexico, for municipal purposes, including, but not limited to the following municipal entities and their service areas; the Village of Magdalena, the City of Socorro, the City of Belen, the Village of Los Lunas, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and the City of Rio Rancho, and commercial bulk water sales in parts of Catron, Sierra, Socorro, Valencia, Bernalillo, Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties, limited to those portions that lie within the geographic boundaries of the Rio Grande Basin, including various municipal and investor owed utilities, commercial enterprises, and state and federal government agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission whereby groundwater would be directly discharged to the Rio Grande.”

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center continues to represent the protestants, and yesterday, September 12, submitted a motion to the Catron County Seventh Judicial District Court that the Court re-open its 2012 Memorandum Decision (denying the Ranch’s appeal of the OSE’s rejection of the water transfer) so that the Court can order the OSE to reject the Ranch’s amended 2016 application, which includes the same defects that caused the OSE to deny the application in the first place.

The OSE appears to regard all of these applications as one. They all have the same filing number, RG-89943, and the agency has determined that any protests filed in response to the original 2007 application “are considered timely for this corrected application and notice of publication.”

Many of the Datil-area protestants believe that if the water transfer is approved, the Ranch, which owns 17,000 acres, will mine their rural water resources to supply the more populated areas of the state at great profit. The Ranch, on its website, boasts that the “proposed Augustin Plains Ranch water pipeline project, much like the San Juan/Chama River Project before it, has tremendous potential to supply New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande Valley with an abundance of water for centuries to come.” It also states that it will “take advantage of the ranch’s unique location to enhance recharge and replace all of the pumped water with rain water and snowmelt currently being lost to evaporation. No water mining would occur.” How it plans to do this, at least from the information posted on the website, is unclear. A statement in the amended December 2014 doesn’t provide any more detail: “Applicant also intends to construct enhanced recharge facilities which will collect runoff that would otherwise evaporate in the Plains of Augustin. This water will augment the groundwater in the aquifer and offset the amount that is pumped from the Applicant’s wells. Applicant requests that offset be recognized for these enhanced recharge projects in an amount to be determined at the hearing [before the OSE].”

Hopefully a Court ruling on the Law Center’s motion will effectively end this saga for the people of Datil. If the case does go to a hearing before the OSE, the three criteria upon which the agency bases its decision whether to grant or deny a transfer—impairment, conservation, and public welfare—will no doubt all be argued in this case that will impact both residents of the area and public policy regarding the movement of water.

For more information regarding the protest of the Augustin Plains Ranch LLC proposed transfer you can contact Carol Pittman at pittray@gilanet.com, or 575-772-5866.

 

 

 

 

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