Water up for grabs?

New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine speaks at the San Augustin Water Coalition meeting Saturday.

Expect Augustin Plains Ranch LLC to reapply soon for a permit to pump water from the San Augustin Plains.

“It’s close,” New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine said at the San Augustin Water Coalition annual meeting Saturday in Datil.

“We had a problem with well locations,” Blaine added. “We sent it back to them.”

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC first applied for a permit to pump water from the San Augustin Plains in 2007.

Its last attempt at a permit to pipe water from Catron and Socorro counties to Rio Rancho to serve any future use for water in seven New Mexico counties was rejected in Seventh District Court in November.

The ruling backed the state engineer’s opinion that the application for the permit was “vague and incomplete.”

The previous application stated that Augustin Plains Ranch sought to appropriate ground water —54,000 acre feet per year — for “municipal, industrial, commercial, offset surface water depletions, replacement, sale and/or leasing purposes.”

Blaine told those in attendance at the meeting that the next application had a better chance of succeeding. He said he expected the application to be “complete.”

He also said his hydrology department has determined that water is available for appropriation, which is a requirement in the application process. State statute does not require a determination that the water requested is available, Blaine said.

Blaine said he is anticipating accepting the application.

The next step in the process after the application is filed is for the notice of publication to be advertised in the newspaper where the application is filed. Blaine expects the publication to be advertised in either El Defensor Chieftain or the Albuquerque Journal, which is considered a state newspaper.

It must be published for three consecutive weeks.

Protests can be filed against the application from the time of the first publication until 10 days after the third publication.

“I don’t want you to be blindsided,” Blaine told those in attendance.

“I expect there to be a lot of protests,” said New Mexico Speaker of the House Don Tripp, who spoke at the candidate forum.

The protests will be heard during hearings following the notice publications.

Blaine will then make a decision on the application. One of the things he must determine is whether such a system is buildable or just “speculative,” which could lead to the rejection of the permit

Even then, that is not expected to be the last word on the issue.

As with the case with previous applications, San Augustin Water Coalition Board Member Eileen Dodds expects the fate of the application to be determined by the courts.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Dodds said.

It’s been nine years since Augustin Plains Ranch LLC first applied for a permit to drill 37 wells on the San Agustin Plains, that flat expanse straddling Socorro and Catron counties that was once called the “sea of grass.” The plan to pump out up to 17 billion gallons of water a year from the San Augustin aquifer immediately came under fire from hundreds of Catron and Socorro County residents in 2007.

More than 600 protests were originally filed with the Office of the State Engineer.

Tripp called the original application “a little bit ludicrous.”

“But it did help create dialogue,” Tripp said.

While Blaine indicates he would likely accept this permit application, Tripp still believes the permit will be rejected.

He believes such a plan would deplete the water sources used by ranchers and farmers who depend on the San Augustin Plain groundwater.

“We need to keep the ag community healthy,” Tripp said. “And a lot of that depends on water.

“We have real issues about running water from this area,” he added. “If we want this area to grow and prosper, we need water.”

According to a February 2016 article written by hydrologist Dennis Inman. the San Augustin Plains or watershed is a closed basin 1,993 square miles in size. Two counties share the watershed; Catron County’s portion is approximately 1,551 square miles in size, a little over ¾ of the watershed, while Socorro County is about 441 square miles in size.

Closed basin means no outlet or stream leaves the basin. There are no perennial streams within the basin. The only water it receives is from rain and snow that falls directly on the watershed.

Inman states that the water that is in the basin is considered ancestral water mainly from the past Pleistocene ice age. The recent water additions in the last couple of centuries has been less than evapotranspiration rate and the leakage rate along fracture and faults , as water has not accumulated to form a lake as it did in past Pleistocene Era. That large ancient lake has long since evaporated.

In 2015, members of the SAWC appeared before the New Mexico Legislature’s Interim Committee on Water and Natural Resources, and told the lawmakers the Vittorio Modena family of Italy bought the 18,000 acres on the San Agustin Plains in 1969 through a holding company with a New York City law firm but, to their knowledge, has never been to New Mexico.

However, in an email, Augustin Plains Ranch LLC said Modena has in fact visited the state.

“We understand that their original plan was to subdivide the land for residential use. That never happened,” Dodds said. “The family has never ranched, or hunted, or farmed, or even met with the people of Catron County. They did however, lease grazing rights to a local rancher, and have leased the hunting rights to a local outfitter.”

Two test wells were drilled by the company in 2008, and a cursory study was done on the aquifer itself. Stacy Timmons, Interim Manager of the Aquifer Mapping Program the Bureau of Geology, has said preliminary results of a groundwater sampling campaign by hydrologists at the Bureau of Geology suggest that there is limited recharge occurring in the region of the San Agustin Basin.

“The ages of groundwater that we have collected within the San Agustin Plains, based on carbon-14 dates on groundwater, is on average about 12,000 years old,” Timmons said in a July, 2014 interview.