The War Over Water in New Mexico


New Mexico Dispute Over Underground Water Source

The San Agustin Plains are home to ranches, cattle grazing grasslands, and telescope arrays. It is adjacent to a small community well-known for its delectable pies, forests plentiful with elk, and the hiking and biking Trail called Continental Divide.

That’s what it’s known for. However, what it’s notorious for —  or has been over the last 12 years — is an aquifer beneath the land.

Thousands of years ago, an underground lake had formed under the San Augustin plain. Carbon dating shows that the waters beneath are at least 800 years old, possibly even 12,000. The Reserve has been disputed for over a dozen years.

The office of the New Mexico state engineer is waging a legal battle with the state courtrooms. Another battle in the District courthouse is set to take place at the end of June this year.

An Italian ranch owner, B. Modena, has a ranch on the line between Socorro County and Catron County and are up against allied environmentalists and ranchers of a more conservative disposition.

Since 2007, the Augustin Plains Ranch limited liability company has been trying to attain a permit to pump water from the ancient aquifer. They intend to pump water to businesses and communities alongside the Rio Grande, up to Albuquerque.

The manager of the project, M. Jichlinski, claims that this is a sustainability project, which is much needed in a state so starved of water. Droughts are no stranger to New Mexico, and even the mighty Rio Grande has been known to dry up at some points of the year. Back in the summer of 2018, the river was dry throughout Socorro country.

Jichlinski points out that this year has been an abundant one, but that the dry spells will be back.

However, opposition to the project claims that this would be a huge favor, precisely in terms of sustainability. They claim it lacks foresight because they believe that it would have disastrous future consequences.

So far, there have been 600 protests. Each of them pointed out that it was a short-term solution, stating that it was a closed aquifer. This means that it isn’t connected to any river, as its supplies are limited. Pumping it would cause it to dry out very fast, and everyone would be back to square one again.

The State Engineer rejected the Augustin Plains Ranch’s application a year ago, stating that it hadn’t met the necessary legal requirements for a working permit.

Augustin Plains make an appeal to the 7th Judicial District Court right thereafter.

Summary judgment is set to take place at the end of June this year.

Many parties have gotten involved in this case, such as the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (representing around 80 clients opposing the project) and Catron County Board. They are striving to have the case totally dismissed, while M. Jichlinski is asking to plead his case at an evidentiary hearing.

An attorney from the Environmental Law Center claims this hearing should not be granted because the Augustin Plains Ranch hadn’t met the necessary requirements in a manner which was fair and square.

On the other hand, the Ranch claims that a demonstration would illustrate and prove their point. They claim to have already contacted 5 counties along the Rio Grande, citing that their Water Utility authorities have expressed an interest in being a part of the project. Mr. Jichlinski claimed that all these potential end users need is clear proof that the project would be a success, and he is just asking for a chance to show this.

The commitment of the mentioned counties is questionable, especially since Socorro and Magdalena counties have enlisted with the protestors.

The Mayor of Magdalena county said they had considered the idea, but found it to be faulty. The county has had its fair share of water problems. Back in 2013, the county well ceased to work and Magdalena ended up entirely without water. They plan to build a new well, and the aquifer is not a source they’re considering.

The AP Ranch claims they could pump 48 million gallons a day from the aquifer. They’d unearth 37 wells in total and deliver the water to its riverside users through a pipeline measuring 140 miles.

They estimate this project would cost in the realm of 600 million dollars.

The University of New Mexico director calculated that 48 million gallons equals to what the Albuquerque Bernalillo County consumes within a year. The city of Socorro needs barely 5% of that annually, as they don’t have heavy industry around to guzzle up that much water.

To counter this, Jichlinski spoke for the Ranch, claiming the aquifer will be sustained and recharged by the snowfall in winter and the monsoon season rainfall. He claims this would replenish the aquifer for the amount necessary.

So does anyone agree on how much water there actually is?

It is difficult to determine because the area gets about 14 inches of rain a year according to a survey from 1994 that the Ranch is citing. Their report claims that the aquifer contains nearly 55 million acre-feet of water and can sustain being tapped.

New Mexico Tech is currently conducting a study on the amount of water there is, and the results will be released later this summer after the peer review. However, their preliminary results indicate that there is much less water than it was estimated in the mid-1990s.

The Ranch is assuring everyone that there is plenty of water in the 4 underground basins and that it would help local communities. The fact that Pie Town, Catron, Soccoro, as well as Karl G. Jansky observatory are nearby is seen as a plus by the residents and local landowners because they haven’t had any comprehensive communication with the Ranch throughout the years.

A ranch owner whose plot borders the AP Ranch on every side says that they’ve never even contacted him. Reports show that the Ranch talked to a few leaders in the community back in 2007 when the original petition was filed, but that was it.

The residents do not want the grasslands to dry up even more. They realize that there would be no more wild game and no more arable land if the aquifer dried up completely. There is even a Coalition formed that is protesting this initiative by putting up billboards. There are fears the aquifer will dry up within a decade if this plan gets approved.

Local residents fear that their wells will dry up if this goes on. M. Jichlinski claims that their wells are supplied from other aquifers and that they wouldn’t be affected by them pumping this one.

Because the Ranch represented by Jichlinski happens to be owned by a New York company (which is in turn owned by the Italian billionaire, B. Modena, as mentioned) locals are in an uproar that a non-local company is wreaking so much havoc there.

Senator Heinrich (a Democrat) and Speaker of the House D. Tripp (a Republican) have called the initiative “water grabbing” and commodification of resources.

With the Democratic and Republican streams coming to a confluence on such a matter, it seems a miracle is in order. Perhaps the aquifer will stay safely in the ground after all.

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