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Concerns Overflow in Datil as Residents Confront Ranch's Bid to Pump Up to 17 Billion Gallons

By Rene Romo
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
    DATIL— Usually only weddings and funerals bring out crowds in this rural community on the western New Mexico plains, said Datil postmaster and lifelong resident Mavis Perdue.
    But a sizable chunk of the region's sparse population— about 300 people— packed the Datil Elementary School gym on Tuesday night because of an application to drill deep for a stunning amount of water and possibly pipe it 60 miles west to the Rio Grande.
    ''We're all just horrified by this,'' Datil resident Cheryl Hastings said before the meeting, word of which was spread through an old-fashioned phone tree. ''We are doing everything we can to mobilize.''
    The cause of the anxiety is the application by the owner of the 18,000-acre Augustin Plains Ranch for a state permit to appropriate 54,000 acre-feet of water per year in Catron County.
    The water would be obtained by drilling 37 wells on the ranch, each as deep as 2,000 feet, with the proposed diversion amounting to about about 17.6 billion gallons per year— more than half the annual consumption by the city of Albuquerque.
    Augustin Plains Ranch is owned by Italian businessman Bruno Modena, who ranch representative Everett Shaw said is principal of a New York-based firm called S Management. The company's New York City address is the same as that of a general contracting outfit called PM Contracting.
    Shaw acknowledged in a telephone interview that the project's magnitude makes it ''unique,'' but he said it is aimed at promoting economic development around the state without harming locals. At the same time, specific uses for the water are addressed in only broad terms by Shaw and the ranch's application.
    Given the pressure to meet the water needs of varied interests, from farmers to growing cities to the environment, in an arid state with stressed supplies, Shaw said there is a big market for the water.
    ''If there are development projects that the state assigned a high priority to, we'd be anxious to look at that opportunity in the market,'' Shaw said.
    The ranch company proposes a variety of standard uses for the water, such as for livestock, irrigation, real estate development and municipal needs. But another proposed use— again only broadly referred to— was really what caught local attention: providing water to the state to help New Mexico meet its delivery obligations to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
    If the state needed to find more water to meet its compact obligations, ''We'd be able to explore the market for other large users," Shaw said.
    As any longtime New Mexican knows, the mere mention of water and Texas in the same sentence is enough to make the ground shake— let alone an application for water rights sufficient to supply a small city.
    The major concern, voiced by a number of residents, is that such a huge appropriation will dry up other wells in the area, lower groundwater levels and dash the local economy.
    ''The local economy around our communities is very fragile; any action that affected something as basic as water availability could have catastrophic effects," Bill Green, superintendent of the Quemado-based Independent School District No. 2, said in a letter to state Engineer John D'Antonio last week.
    "It is not worth the risk to allow such a venture when we are unable to predict the actual consequences," Green wrote.
'Rude awakening'
    The big water rights application is likely to take several years to resolve, said D'Antonio, whose office is in charge of state water permits.
    "Obviously, there are a whole lot of protesters who will want assurances that it's not affecting their water supply," he said. ''What comes into question is the feasibility of the plan itself and if it's do-able— is the water there?
    ''I can't stop anyone from filing an application," D'Antonio said. "We'll see how this plays out.''
    At the Tuesday night meeting, local opponents of the water rights application gave residents detailed instructions on how to file protests.
    Protests or objections to the Augustin Plains Ranch application have to be filed by Dec. 16. D'Antonio said a ''slew of protests'' already have been filed.
    ''It's been a rude awakening,'' said Nichole Sanders, an instructional assistant and part of a long-time ranching family, who helped organize the community meeting last week. ''We've never had something like this come up before.''
    Augustin Plains Ranch LLC is proposing to access the water by drilling the 37 wells north and south of U.S. 60 between the Catron-Socorro county line to the east and Datil on the west.
    With water rights in the Middle Rio Grande area selling for between $15,000 and $25,000 per acre-foot, the proposed appropriation would be worth about $1 billion, said Suzanne Smith, a Socorro-based water rights consultant.
    ''It's huge money, just based on that,'' Smith said.
    The cost of building 60 miles of pipeline to get the water downslope to the Rio Grande could also carry a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars, said Socorro Rep. Don Tripp, who based his estimate on similar projects.
    ''The only market for this water would be the state of New Mexico,'' Tripp said, ''and I'm not sure we have that much (money).''
    Shaw said his group will address every ''valid concern'' and that he expects meetings will be held with individuals and perhaps the community starting in January after all protests have been filed.
    ''We are trying to do a project that meets our interests, obviously, but also the needs of the state,'' Shaw said. Later, he added: ''We want it to be a project that works for everybody.''
Not a closed basin
    The project's developers must show that the diversion of 54,000 acre-feet of water per year will not have any effect on underground water flowing west as part of the Gila-San Francisco watershed, a fully-appropriated basin.
    The application to the state Engineer Office says that, based on initial modeling, hydrologists have concluded the Augustin Plains basin ''contains an extraordinary amount of potable groundwater in storage that could sustain diversions of 54,000 acre-feet per annum for a period of 300 years.''
    The application says the ranch ''believes that the State Engineer could impose conditions on the use of water under a permit to avoid impairment to all other existing users.''
    The Augustin Plains Ranch has retained the engineering firm of Bohannon-Houston Inc. to evaluate the cost of a pipeline from Datil to the Rio Grande.
    That and other information will be made available to the public as the application moves forward, the application says.
    D'Antonio said the Augustin Plains basin is not a closed basin, meaning applications for new water diversions still can be made.
    ''But the question is the connectivity between it and the Rio Grande or the Gila Basin, and that's not well understood,'' D'Antonio said.
    Catron County manager Bill Aymar called the application a ''ridiculous request'' and said the County Commission would file a protest.
    Tripp said the scale of the request, and how long it would take to put the water to beneficial use, made him ''a little dubious about what they are trying to do.''
    Bob Myers, a 66-year-old Datil electrician, said he was upset enough by the application to call the FBI and file a report.
    ''This is a new form of terrorism,'' Myers said. ''I've got a 100-foot well. Mine will be the first to go dry.''