OSE examiner hears arguments

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Attorneys on both sides made arguments on two motions to dismiss an application by Augustin Plains Ranch LLC to pump 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from the San Agustin Basin. The hearing was held Tuesday before a Office of the State Engineer hearing examiner at the Socorro County Courthouse.

After the hearing, which lasted about 70 minutes, Hearing Examiner Andrew B. Core said he would submit a report to the state engineer “fairly soon.” He explained that State Engineer Scott Verhines, who stepped into the position three months ago, would make the final decision as to whether the application would move forward.

Augustin Plains Ranch is proposing to drill 37 wells clustered north and south of U.S. 60 near the Socorro-Catron county line. The water could be used for a broad range of purposes in an area that encompasses seven New Mexico counties.

Bruce Frederick, an attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, representing about 80 of the more than 200 protestants, argued that the application should be thrown out on its face because it does not meet the requirement of stating a beneficial use. He characterized the application are speculative in that it tells little about how the water would be used, where and for what purpose.

“The fact is, nobody, not even the Ranch, knows the answers to these questions,” he said.

Attorney Steven Hernandez, representing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, focused his arguments on the precedent approving the application would set. He said what the Ranch was trying to do was make a claim for water and then decide what to do with it.

Hernandez also pointed out similarities between Augustin Ranch’s application and another made by Berrendo LLC, which was dismissed by the OSE.

Attorney John Draper spoke on behalf of Augustin Plains Ranch. He said the application was only the first part of the process and that the Ranch should “have its day in court”. He said if the application was dismissed, the Ranch would be denied the opportunity to present evidence and argue the merits. A dismissal would also deny the Ranch the opportunity to pursue free enterprise, he said.

“If the dismissal is granted, it will prevent people their Constitutional right,” he said.

Draper said the application met the statutory standards prescribed by the state and should be allowed to move forward.

A representative with the state’s Water Rights Division, Stacey Goodwin, said the division was taking no position on the application. She urged the OSE to either dismiss the application in its entirety or allow it to move forward in its entirety, however. A partial decision — one based only on irrigation — would prove problematic, she said.

About 100 people attended the hearing, many of them from western Socorro County or Catron County. The application initially drew more than 900 protests, including residents, ranchers and numerous state and federal agencies.

A detailed report of the hearing will appear in El Defensor Chieftain’s Feb. 11 edition.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.