A proposal to pump billions of gallons of water from a closed aquifer in Catron County to municipalities along the Rio Grande appears dead – for now.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Matthew Reynolds on Thursday approved motions for summary judgment dismissing Augustin Plains Ranch’s application for a permit to provide cities and businesses with water from the remnants of a lake under the San Augustin Plains.
It is the latest chapter in a 12-year legal battle that has seen the ranch have two permits dismissed by the State Engineer’s Office. Those dismissals have been upheld through the courts.
“The people of New Mexico should not have their water tied up any longer with possibilities,” Reynolds wrote in the memorandum.
Doug Mieklejohn, director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, was one of the attorneys who represented more than 80 organizations and individuals who protested the Augustin Plains Ranch pipeline project application. The Catron County Board of Commissioners also challenged the application.
“Judge Reynolds aptly summarized earlier decisions in this long process when he said that the New Mexico Constitution was ‘offended by APR’s attempted subversion’ of constitutional requirements,’ ” Mieklejohn said.
The law center has called the Augustin Plains Ranch project a highly-contested “water grab.”
Augustin Plains Ranch project manager Michel Jichlinksi wasn’t sure if the decision would be appealed or if another application for a permit will be filed with the State Engineer.
“We’re disappointed in this unfair decision,” he said. “It deprives New Mexicans of an important resource for the benefit of a small number of people. New Mexico’s poor economic standing and high levels of poverty are not due to a lack of resources. They stem from a long history of small but powerful interest groups conspiring with politicians and judges against the interests of the state.”
The ranch’s website said the proposed pipeline project would “help accommodate New Mexico’s growing need for water.” The latest application filed in 2014 with the Office of the State Engineer said the pipeline water will also be used at “locations along the length of the pipeline.”
But project opponents – and Reynolds – said the application doesn’t specify what those locations and uses are.
The ranch’s application listed several municipalities and villages as potential users of the water such as Magdalena, Socorro, Belen, Los Lunas, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and Rio Rancho.
But Magdalena and Socorro were among the protesters. And Magdalena Mayor Richard Rumpf and Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker told the Journal their municipalities weren’t interested in purchasing the water.
Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority chairwoman Debbie O’Malley said in a letter to the editor published in the Journal on June 26 that the authority also had no interest in purchasing the water from APR.
Residents in Catron County, including members of the San Augustin Water Coalition, were concerned the aquifer under the San Augustin Plains would run dry if the ranch was granted a permit.
Datil area resident James Hall, whose land is surrounded by the ranch, was pleased with the decision.
“I think the only way to protect a closed water basin like the San Augustin aquifer is to pass legislative protection to stop the export of water out of the basin,” Hall told the Journal. “Since there are no rivers or streams feeding our basin and precipitation hasn’t recharged the supply of water in over 11,000 years, once this finite supply of water is pumped out, the county will die.”
Republican State Rep. Gail Armstrong, who represents Catron County, called the judgment a victory for the farmers, ranchers, and communities surrounding the San Augustin Plains.
“The proposal to mine the aquifer and sell it to communities outside of the basin was a bad deal from the start,” she said. “This ancient aquifer is part of a closed system, and once the water is removed from the basin, it can’t be replaced.”
Augustin Plains Ranch proposed pumping 54,000 acre-feet of water per year (17 billion gallons) from the aquifer through 37 wells, a little more than the annual “consumptive use” of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, according to John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program.