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State lacks tools to sort out water question

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive approach to dealing with New Mexico’s water problems than the current governmental review of the Augustin Plains Ranch water pipeline proposal.

Depending on your view of the issue, this is either: a) an innovative approach to bring new water to the Middle Rio Grande Valley, or b) an inappropriate attempt to privatize a public resource that could devastate the rural community where the water originates.

Currently, the proposal has entered a new state of legal limbo, with both proponents and opponents forced to spend money on lawyers to fight it out, but with no clear process for sorting out the underlying questions.

For the record, I’m agnostic on the proposal. My interest is in the process by which we solve these sorts of questions. And on that score, it’s increasingly clear that our current laws and policies are not up to the task of determining whether “a” or “b” is most consistent with our values and long-term interests.

Brad Udall, a water policy scholar at Colorado State University, describes the West’s water problems as a collision among 19th century law, 20th century engineering and 21st century realities. The Augustin Plains Ranch questions are a great example.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Carol Pittman, who owns a ranch next to the property and has been leading the fight against the proposal. Pittman and her neighbors are one for two in the courts on the issue. In 2012, a district judge ruled in their favor and against the project. But after the project’s proponents found a new administrative approach to revive it, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against Pittman’s attempt to kill it again.

The Supreme Court decision stops well short of approving the project. It merely leaves it alive in a sort of administrative limbo that’s benefiting no one.

The 19th century water law to which Udall refers was designed to solve the problem of diverting water from a river to nearby farmland, not to move water long distances, with all the possible benefits and potential costs that entails. And to the extent the laws were tweaked over the years to enable the long-term government-sponsored water diversions we now have, they are still poorly suited to the idea of a private company moving water.

The Augustin Plains Ranch proposal is a good example of a new model for 21st century water management in the western United States – a pipeline to pump groundwater from a lightly populated rural area to meet growing needs elsewhere.

In our case, that means pumping water from a ranch near Datil, in the high country west of Socorro, to the state’s populated Rio Grande Valley.

Two similar projects are proposed elsewhere in the West, one to pipe water from a rural valley to Las Vegas, Nev., and a second to move water from a desert groundwater basin in southeastern California to the Los Angeles area.

Here, a private investor-backed consortium called Augustin Plains Ranch LLC wants to drill 37 wells in a closed basin east of Datil and sell the water to someone as yet unnamed in the Rio Grande Valley. Based on paperwork submitted to the state, Rio Rancho seems the most likely buyer, though Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as the state, have been mentioned as likely customers. But no customer has committed to buy the water.

The lack of a customer killed the Augustin Plains deal the first time around. In 2012, the Office of the State Engineer, New Mexico’s water master, made clear it thought moving water around the state to meet growing needs was a good idea in principle, but that failure to specify a buyer violated state law. He denied Augustin Plains’ request for a permit, and the courts agreed with his decision.

State officials made clear they think the idea of moving water around the state is, in general, worth considering. They just didn’t have the legal tools to approve it in 2012.

Now, after losing a round in court, Augustin Plains is back with a new proposal that looks an awful lot similar to the old one, but with enough of a twist to breathe new life into the process. Now both sides are paying lawyers to fight anew.

This is clearly a job for the New Mexico Legislature.

If we as a community think Pittman is right, legislators could write laws prohibiting large-scale water transfers, forcing the Middle Rio Grande Valley to make do with the water it has. Or they could do what some states have done and write “area of origin” laws to protect rural communities from water grabs. If we think that a private effort to bring water to the Rio Grande Valley is a good thing, the laws could be tweaked to make it easier for Augustin Plains LLC, allowing the company to claim the water and spend the money to develop it before it has lined up a buyer. Or if we think there are merits to both arguments, the Legislature could write rules that enable private water movement while providing protections for communities of origin.

Instead, it’s now seven years since the first version of this proposal was submitted to the state and it remains in limbo, because we’ve left the Office of the State Engineer and the courts with a lousy set of tools to sort out the question.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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