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Investors refloating water sales proposal

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A for-profit group hoping to pump New Mexico groundwater to the Rio Grande Valley and sell it to thirsty cities has asked state water managers for a new hearing on a proposal the Office of State Engineer turned down two years ago.

Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, an investment group that includes the owners of a ranch near Datil in the high country west of Socorro, is again proposing to pump groundwater and send it through a pipeline that would follow the Rio Grande north to the Albuquerque metro area.

Proponents of the project say it could provide an important new source of supply for the water-strapped Rio Grande Valley.

“This is a very big step in developing a new and sustainable source of water for New Mexicans for generations to come,” project manager Michel Jichlinski said in a statement announcing the company’s new application.

Critics say it is an illegitimate attempt to privatize what is legally a public resource, and that the new application suffers from the same legal flaw that caused the previous one to be thrown out. In 2012, state Engineer Scott Verhines ruled against the Augustin Plains Ranch proposal because the project’s developers never identified who would use the water, and where.

In a statement explaining his decision, Verhines said Augustin Plains Ranch’s failure to “include specifics as to the end user of the water” was one of the key reasons for the denial. Verhines’ ruling concluded that the state engineer needs to know where and how the water is going to be used in order to consider the request.

The new application includes letters from the city of Rio Rancho saying it is “interested in discussing” the possibility of buying Augustin ranch water. But the city’s letters offer no commitment, and the amount of water Rio Rancho says it needs – “several thousand acre feet of water” – is only a fraction of the 54,000 acre feet per year the company hopes to sell.

Augustin Plains Ranch repeats its prior approach – listing all possible water uses in much of a seven-county area from Socorro to Santa Fe. The ranch, in its filing with the state, said it hopes to win preliminary approval for the application before specifying who will use the water, and where.

That drew quick criticism from attorney Bruce Frederick with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center in Santa Fe, who represented a number of the 248 people who protested the group’s previous application.

“The application is a public relations piece and suffers from the same basic legal deficiency as the prior applications – the ranch has again failed to identify any actual place or purpose of use of water,” Frederick told the Journal.

In parallel to its new application, Augustin Ranch also is in court appealing Verhines’ denial of the previous application. Project spokeswoman Whitney Waite said no decision has been made about whether that appeal will continue.

“How we’re going to handle the appeal is still under review,” Waite said. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to be heard in August by New Mexico Court of Appeals.

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