Augustin Plains Ranch LLC wants to pump water from beneath the desert. A lot of water.
The company sits on the outskirts of tiny Datil, N.M., a town that boasted a mere 54 residents in the last U.S. Census. The remarkable thing about Datil—aside from perhaps the nearby rock climbing attractions—is that it’s perched atop the Rio Grande Underground Water Basin.
How much water dwells in the basin is still unknown, although a New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources’ independent hydrogeology study on the area should be completed this year. The company is convinced there’s enough to suck 54,000 acre-feet a year without disturbing local wells.
Fifty-four thousand acre-feet, by the way, is a lot of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of land in one foot of water. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons. (Imagine that many plastic milk cartons squeezed together in a sea before you.)
Augustin Plains Ranch wants to slurp about 17.6 billion gallons from the basin, which is about half of what the entire city of Albuquerque pumps each year.
The company’s request drew controversy when it filed its application with the Office of the State Engineer [“The Drain Game,” March 17-23, 2011]. On the 2007 application, the company didn’t specify how it wanted to use the water. That’s why more than 900 protests were lodged against it and why about 80 of those parties asked the New Mexico Environmental Law Center to file a motion to dismiss the application in 2011.
At the end of March, the State Engineer agreed with them and denied Augustin Plains Ranch’s request. But this story may not be over. On Monday, April 9, the company announced it would appeal the decision in District Court.
Asking for permission to pump without saying how the water will be used treats water like a mineral resource, such as gold or copper, says Bruce Frederick, attorney with the Environmental Law Center. But under the Constitution, water belongs to the public. Augusta Plains Ranch “clearly just wanted to hold onto the water until the best price came along,” he says.
Tom Carroll, whose public relations firm Carroll Strategies represents Augustin Plains Ranch, sees the situation another way. “We’re saying there are hundreds of worthy projects for the environment,” he says, “for tourism, for the economy, for people, that we all know are there.”
To those who worry there isn’t enough in the basin to support that kind of pumping, Carroll counters that he believes the company could prove otherwise. “We were asking to have the opportunity to present that case,” he says. “And we hope to present that case in the future.”