Water grab?

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Two men representing the Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, met with about 75 community members in Magdalena to answer questions regarding the ranch’s application to the State Engineer to operate 37 wells, pulling about 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the vast underground basin.

According to Tom Carroll, ranch public relations for the ranch, all the ranch wants right now is for the State Engineer to look at their application.

The State Engineer denied considering Augustin Plains Ranch’s application for several reasons, including that the application omitted basic critical details required by law — how, when, where and in what quantities the corporation intended to use water.

The ranch appealed the decision but, in November in Socorro, 7th District Court Judge Matt Reynolds upheld the State Engineer’s decision.

Carroll said another appeal to the decision has been filed. He also said a new application process can begin but it would take longer than the appeal.

“A new application process takes place, it will be one year or more,” he said. “What we are asking is to consider the possibility. If there is 50 million acre-feet and if it can be withdrawn, all we want is an opportunity.”

The other representative for the ranch was Bob Bowcock, chief technical officer for the ranch. He said most adjudications find themselves in court for a long time.

“It only makes for better law in New Mexico,” he said. “The Augustin Plains Ranch is a valuable resource to all of New Mexico.”

Bowcock said the ranch’s owner, Vittorio Modena, of Italy, an urban development planner, didn’t buy in New Mexico planning to use the water. He also said the ranch expects opposition.

Modena would be bringing $500 million to invest in the project.

“I haven’t worked on a project in the world where people haven’t been pessimists,” he said.

But, Bowcock said, the hydrology of the basin has been described repeatedly as 50 million acre-feet. Even with no recharge, if the project were using 50,000 acre-feet a year for 300 years, the basin would have been mined of 17 percent of its water.

“But we are talking about recharging the basin,” Bowcock said. “It would absolutely not be mining water. Mining is to extract without the intention to replace.”

The project prescribes 37 wells, not all running at the same time, rotating services with about half working at any given time, Bowcock said.

Water to recharge the system will come from the storm flows from the mountains, which, instead of being allowed to flow out on the plains, where it evaporates and is lost, will be captured.

“We are proposing to go into alluvial fans, capture storm flows and artificially sink them right there,” Bowcock said. “It’s artificial recharge.”

“This is an interesting project because we would work together with the communities,” Carroll said. “A certain amount of water would come to the community. We are offering to work together so you would have legal and regulating control.

“We believe we can leave you better than you are now.”

The first question from the concerned audience was, “Why should we trust you?”

“You shouldn’t,” Bowcock said.

One audience member referred to what the ranch owner calls a public/private partnership as fascism.

A woman asked what happens with the ranchers, who rely on the storm flows from the mountains to water fields and cattle. She also asked about Augustin Plains Ranch’s proposed pipeline, which would bring water from the ranch down through Magdalena using the Department of Transportation right of way.

The response from Bowcock to most questions such as this was to agree and to repeat that if the State Engineer looks at the application, it will be proved or not proved possible.

“I moved out here to get away from that crap,” said a gentleman in the audience. “You want my water and I don’t want you to have it.”

Another audience member asked about soil subsidence, pointing out places in the world where the land has sunk down hundreds of feet due to water removal.

“Now we know what happens and how,” Bowcock said, adding there will be warning systems in place in case that shows any indication of happening.

In response to a question about why the representatives were holding the meeting, Bowcock said it was just to do the “Q and A.”

“I appreciate your anger,” Carroll said. “Anger is good.”

One rancher, a neighbor to the Augustin Plains Ranch, wanted to know why the owner was not around talking with everybody.

“Where is he,” she asked. “He is not our neighbor.”

Near the end of the meeting Rep. Don Tripp pitched in.

“I’m not sure if you have helped yourselves or not,” he said.

“We are not trying to splinter you out,” Carroll said. “We are coming to you as a community.”

He added that the ranch is willing to pay for a hydrologist, chosen by the community, to look at the application and investigate the possibilities posed by the ranch and the people.

“We are organized now,” said another audience member. “You will see tens of thousands of protesters (against the next application).”

Someone said the San Augustin Plains were chosen as a location for the Very Large Array radio telescope system because of the area’s freedom from electronic interference. He wanted to know how, with all the power that would be needed to maintain the 37 proposed wells, they intend to deal with that.

Bowcock said they would put the underground infrastructure in place that would keep the power from affecting the VLA.

At the end of the meeting Carroll finished up by talking about Modena’s intent for the project.

“He believes this is a project that will benefit New Mexico and this community,” Carroll said.