Ranchers should be very concerned about Augustin Plains Ranch LLC’s attempt to pump water from Catron County to municipalities and businesses along the Rio Grande.

That’s the opinion of Jim Libbon, associate dean of agriculture and economics at New Mexico State University.

“If I were them, I would be very concerned,” Libbon said at the Leadership New Mexico Conference last Friday in Las Cruces.

Libbon said the issue of water rights often brings agriculture into conflict with economic development.

He said that should not be the case in other parts of New Mexico such as Las Cruces or Deming, where aquifers are replenished with enough water to meet the needs of agriculture and economic development efforts.

“But that is not the case in the plains in other parts of the state,” Libbon said.

That is specifically the case with the aquifer in Catron County where Augustin Plains Ranch is seeking a permit to pump 54,000 acre-feet per year of water to municipalities and businesses. This is the equivalent to 48 million gallons per day. The aquifer under the San Augustin Plains contains water from an ancient lake and the only way it is replenished is through the rainfall and snowfall the area receives.

“That area does not receive enough rainfall to replenish the aquifer,” Libbon said.

Catron County landowner Randy Shaffer said the area has received more than the average of 14 inches of precipitation this year, but finds himself in agreement with Libbon.

"As a landowner who relies on groundwater for agricultural, wildlife, drinking, and property value, I am extremely concerned that one entity could decide to deplete the ground water that belongs to all residents," said Shaffer, who owns property near Datil. "It makes no sense to deplete the aquifer under Catron and Socorro counties and sell the water to the highest bidder for the benefit of one entity. By lowering the aquifer, many springs will be affected which will have adverse affects on wildlife and could be devastating for property values. One entity should not have this kind of power to negatively impact so many others.”

Critics of the proposal, such as outgoing Speaker of the House Don Tripp, are concerned that such an effort could devastate Catron County economically, especially since it has an economy almost entirely based on agriculture, according to statistics cited by Libbon.

Catron County is among five counties in the state where the economy is almost entirely agriculture based. Socorro County also has one of the most agriculture-based economies in the state according to Libbon’s statistics.

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC project manager Michel Jichlinksi did his best in a question-and-session with the Chieftain last fall to assure area residents there was enough water in the aquifer to do what the ranch is proposing. He also said the project would benefit Catron and Socorro counties rather than harm them.

“The closed basin is about 2,000 square miles in extent or 1.3 million acre,” Jichlinski said. “At 14 inches of rainfall per year, total rainfall over the basin is approximately 1.5 million acre feet per year, 30 times more than what we have applied for. Our preliminary studies indicate that recharge of the aquifer can be enhanced through the construction of dedicated structures. This is part of our application and will be investigated in detail during the hearing.”

“Many ranches and farms draw water from aquifers other than the San Augustin Aquifer and will not be affected,” Jichlinski added. The plains themselves are sparsely populated and there aren’t many operating wells. Nevertheless, should someone’s wells be affected by the project, the law is very clear. If an alternative solution to provide the water that the rancher or farmer is entitled to can be found, the project must pay for the costs involved. If there is no feasible solution, it is called impairment and the project cannot proceed.”

Jichlinski said Catron and Socorro counties would benefit from the project in several ways.

“First, there will be a direct benefit through additional tax revenues,” Jichlinski said. “Secondly, more water will be available for local communities than presently. The area will also benefit through job creation from the construction of the project infrastructure and the development of new industries and technologies in the project area. Specifically, we can imagine a high tech cluster developing from the world class expertise already present at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. Knowledge areas could include enhanced aquifer recharge discussed above, aquifer management, the use of solar and hydropower energy to power well fields, energy storage and more. Finally and perhaps most importantly, we believe that the local community should receive a direct contribution from the project either through a share in equity, royalties or some other mechanism.”

Augustin Plains Ranch has been trying to gain a permit to pump water from the aquifer since 2007. This attempt is entering the hearing stage, which is expected to take about two years and ultimately could face a court battle.

The New Mexico State Engineer’s office has previously rejected the effort because the application was speculative and incomplete. But State Engineer Tom Blaine told the San Augustin Plains Water Coalition last spring that this permit stood a good chance of being approved.

His office worked with the ranch on well locations for the permit.

Several protests have been filed by residents, environmental groups, agricultural groups and governing bodies including Catron and Socorro counties, the City of Socorro and the Village of Magdalena.