The Drain Game
Is a company trying to suck up our water and sell it back to us?
By Christie Chisholm
Maybe you’ve never heard of Datil, N.M. It’s just a tiny town in Catron Country, a two-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Albuquerque. Besides the pretty scenery, it’s generally unremarkable. But for the last three years, it’s played host to a furious debate on water rights.
Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, which sits on the cusp of the town, has a proposal. It wants to suck 54,000 acre-feet a year from the Rio Grande Underground Water Basin, which lies directly under Datil. An acre-foot refers to the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of land in one foot of water. One acre-foot equals about 325,851 gallons, and so Augustin Plains Ranch wants to annually pump about 17.6 billion gallons of water from the subterranean reservoir. To put that giant number in perspective, it’s about half of what the entire city of Albuquerque pumps every year.
How, exactly, Augustin Plains Ranch wants to use all that water—which would be drilled out of 37 wells up to 3,000 feet deep—is unspecified. In its application to the Office of the State Engineer, the corporation left its purpose for the water open-ended. On the application, the company checked off every option and wrote in some additional uses. The vagueness and magnitude of its proposal has provoked ire in Catron County residents, who refer to the action as a “water grab.”
After the application was first filed in October 2007, more than 900 protests were filed against it. That number has since dwindled, primarily due to the fact that protesters were required to pay a $25 fee to the Office of the State Engineer by June 28 of last year in order to keep their protests on record.
Carol Pittman is one of the roughly 250 protesters who remains. She retired in Datil 15 years ago, choosing the town for its tranquility after living in the clogged arteries of Southern California. Pittman is worried about the effects of draining 54,000 acre-feet from the area. “I’m concerned about livelihoods,” she says. “People can’t make a life without water. I’m concerned for the effect on wildlife and the environment.”
“People can’t make a life without water. I’m concerned for the effect on wildlife and the environment.”
Carol Pittman, resident of Datil, N.M
The basin is connected to the Gila River and the Rio Grande. Pittman and others want to know if pumping out a large amount of water will impair the flow of the rivers or dry up local wells by lowering the water table. Whatever effects pumping may have are unknown, since no studies have yet been performed.
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources started an independent hydrogeologic study in October 2009, but its findings won’t be presented until the end of 2012.
The Alibi was unable to reach the attorneys representing Augustin Plains Ranch—John Draper and Jeffrey Wechsler of Montgomery & Andrews—for comment. In its application, the company states that any existing water rights impaired as a result of the pumping will be offset or replaced.
Bruce Frederick, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, is representing about 80 people, including Pittman, in a fight to prevent the approval of the application. Frederick filed a motion last month to dismiss it on the grounds that it’s too “vague and speculative,” he says. “It’s a blaring legal issue. Can you get a permit to appropriate a huge amount of water for no purpose?”
Frederick says there’s been speculation among some protesters that Augustin Plains Ranch plans to sell the water back to the state to comply with the Rio Grande Compact. This agreement from 1938 ensures that set amounts of Rio Grande water are allocated to Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. If a nongovernmental entity purchases the water and sells it back to the state, that would turn water law on its head, he says. “I think it’s purely unconstitutional.” He adds that if the proposal is successful, people from around the world will “come in and buy up water and sell it to us.”
Usually, he says, when someone seeks the right to pump water, it’s because there is a specific use in mind, and the applicant only asks for the necessary amount. The Office of the State Engineer can then evaluate the request. “In this case,” says Frederick, “there’s no way to measure whether it’s an appropriate amount.”
Responses in opposition to the Environmental Law Center’s motion are due April 15, and replies in support of the motion are due May 13. The motion will be heard on May 20, when a hearing examiner with the Office of the State Engineer will make a recommendation as to whether the application should be dismissed. If it isn’t dismissed, Augustin Plains Ranch has asked for a minimum of 18 months to conduct studies and collect data. The company also requested that an evidentiary hearing for the application be scheduled for 2014.
Pittman and others are frustrated by the long timeline. It’s been more than three years since the application was filed. “I don’t know why they couldn’t have completed a test,” says Pittman. She adds that ultimately, she just wants to make sure her community is heard. “We don’t have a really strong voice politically,” she says, “but we should have some voice.”
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