State rejects Ranch’s water application

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An application for a permit to pump massive amounts of groundwater from beneath the San Agustin Plains in west-central New Mexico was denied by the New Mexico State Engineer last Friday.

But it may only serve as a setback for Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, which first filed the application to drill 37 wells to pump 54,000 acre-feet of water per year from the basin in 2007.

The denial was issued without prejudice, meaning the Ranch could re-file the application or appeal the state engineer’s decision in district court. And on Monday a spokesman for the Ranch said those options were being weighed.

“We think this is a great project and we are going to be considering moving it forward,” said Tom Carroll, who works for an Albuquerque public relations firm representing the Ranch. “We’re looking forward to an opportunity to spend the next year or so explaining why it’s good and why it won’t impair water rights.”

According to a press release issued on Monday, State Engineer Scott Verhines ruled against the application because it was vague, overly broad and lacked specificity. The wells were to be drilled on both sides of the Catron-Socorro county line near Datil, north and south of U.S. 60.

“I’ve approached this appropriation with a thorough eye for the overall impacts this would have on New Mexicans,” Verhines said in a statement. “As our society becomes increasingly dense in urban areas, we remain encouraging to innovations in water movement around the state. However, reasonable applications are those that identify a clear purpose for the use of the water, include reasonable design plans, and include specifics as to the end user of the water.”

Verhines said the Ranch’s application fell short of meeting the requirements.

“All applications demand intense scrutiny with all decisions made based on sound science, reason and caution, as it is our obligation to New Mexico to effectively and transparently manage, allocate and protect its water resources. Along with the proof of clear demand for the water in one area, and an absence of harm to those in the basin area from which the water is taken, a commitment to proper backing and contractual arrangements must also be in place.”

The decision took into consideration a report filed by Hearing Examiner Andrew Core, who heard arguments on both sides of the issue during a motions hearing in Socorro on Feb. 7.

According to the order denying the application, factors taken into consideration included:

  • approval could be contrary to the conservation of water within the state or detrimental to the public welfare;
  • the application lacks specificity of purpose of the use of water or specify the actual end-user, contrary to sound public policy;
  • the section statutes state that the applicant shall designate the beneficial use, the place of use and the description of the land to be irrigated;
  • the application requested almost all possible use of water both at the Ranch location and at unnamed locations within Bernalillo, Catron, Santa Fe, Sandoval, Sierra and Socorro counties, but did not identify a purpose of specify a location to allow for reasonable evaluation if there would be impairment of existing water rights;
  • the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission is the only entity authorized to administer compact deliveries and it is not listed as a co-applicant.

Still Lingering

The decision was good news for those who protested the application.

“I’m very happy about the state engineer’s decision,” said Bruce Frederick, an attorney with the Environmental Law Center who represented about 80 of more than 200 protestants. “We think it was compelled by law and absolutely correct. We only wish that the application was thrown out a few years ago when the application was first submitted. There was really no definite project that application wanted to do. They just wanted to stake a claim to a bunch of water.”

Roy Farr, chairman of the San Augustin Water Coalition, a grassroots group formed to protect water resources in the area, said he and others were elated when the news broke on Monday.

“We’re happier than heck,” he said. “The people in this area stood together and I hope it stops it.”

But Farr had lingering doubts it would.

“I hope it’s over, but my gut tells me maybe it’s not,” he said.

Augustin Plains Ranch’s spokesman said it was too early to say what approach the Ranch would take.

“It’s too soon to know that,” Carroll said. “We’ll know in a couple of weeks. All we’ve done is considered (options) and made no decisions. We’ll look for the best way to present the project to the public to show the benefits over the next year in some way.”

Carroll didn’t look at the denial as a defeat.

“We wanted the opportunity to explain the benefits. Now, we’ll look for another way to do it,” he said.

Carroll characterized the application as a way to start the dialogue. The fact that it was denied wouldn’t end the discussion.

While the application didn’t state a specific purpose, it would have allowed the water to be used for any purpose, including transferring it to the Rio Grande.

“The state engineer said there will be a need for water transfers at some points … You can’t satisfy the needs of the Rio Grande Compact and other agreements if you can’t move water around,” Carroll said.

Attorney Frederick said he didn’t expect Augustin Plains Ranch to file an appeal.

“I think the state engineer has solid legal grounds for what he did,” Frederick said. “I don’t think it a legal appeal would be advisable.”

In arguing a motion to dismiss at the Feb. 7 hearing, Frederick said the application should be thrown out on its face, since it didn’t meet the requirements of stating a purpose. He said the Ranch should at least be made to re-file the application, which it may yet do.

“We still want a fair hearing to allow us the opportunity to show how it will benefit everybody,” Carroll said. “There’s enough water there that it would not cause impairment. We want the opportunity to state the benefits of the project and we intend to continue to try to do that.”

 


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