Watch the water grab case

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By Sherry Robinson

Newly appointed State Engineer Scott Verhines just made his first big decision, denying an application to Augustin Plains Ranch in its standoff with federal and state agencies, counties, ditch companies, environmentalists, locals, and tribes.
It’s a case all of New Mexico should be watching.
West of Datil in Catron County, promoters want to drill 37 wells 20 inches across and 3,500 feet deep, and pump 54,000 acre-feet of water a year for 300 years. That’s a breathtaking amount of water – enough to supply half of Albuquerque’s needs. In fact, the Rio Grande Valley would be the market.
The 900-plus opponents are relieved, temporarily. You can be sure that APR, as the ranch is known, anticipated the opposition. It’s hired big-name hydrologists, engineers, lawyers and PR people, and has probably settled in for a long campaign.
What’s telling here is who’s not among the opponents – communities along the Rio Grande, commercial interests, and big irrigation organizations. If you live in a thirsty city like Santa Fe or Rio Rancho, you might consider less orthodox sources of water. If you lived in Catron County, where 84 percent of water comes from wells, you’d be fightin’ mad.
APR doesn’t see itself as the bad guy here. Owners have explained that in the process of developing wells for ranch use, they found an untapped new source – every developer’s dream.
In the world of water use, we talk about diversions – moving water from one use to another. APR claims this is the “first new supply of native water to enter the New Mexico water scene since the Office of the Territorial Engineer was formed in 1907.”
APR would “ease water supply problems in New Mexico while managing this scarce resource for the common good.” It would deliver its water to those who need it most, a decision to be made with elected officials, water managers and end users. And the project wouldn’t hurt the supplies of its neighbors.
The lead attorney representing opponents was Bruce Frederick, a New Mexico Tech-trained hydrologist, who says the project boils down to speculation. Other opponents have said water would go to the highest bidder.
Disclosure: After deciding to write about this, I learned that I not only knew the hydrologist and the engineering and PR firms but had previously freelanced for all of them. It doesn’t make me instantly sympathetic – if I lived in Datil, I’d still be worried – but my exposure to them taught me something about population growth, supply and demand, and the shortcomings of existing water law.
That said, if the decision were mine, I would have tried a pilot project and not scared everyone to death with plans of this magnitude.
Verhines denied the application because it was “vague, over broad, lacked specificity, and the effects of granting it cannot reasonably be evaluated.” But the denial is “without prejudice,” meaning that APR can come back and try again in court.
He said no, but he didn’t slam his fist on the table.
“As our society becomes increasingly dense in urban areas, we remain encouraging to innovations in water movement around the state,” Verhines said in his news release. A reasonable application, he explained, would show demand and use for the water, plans that can be scrutinized, credible backing, contracts, and proof that it won’t harm others in the basin.
Harm is the biggest hurdle. APR insists its consultants have a good picture of the aquifer, but a lot of people, in their gut, question how much anybody really knows.
It’s a contest of time. Water needs in the Rio Grande corridor will increase; the population of Catron County isn’t growing. Residents have tradition and law on their side; the developers have money on theirs. In between is the State Engineer.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service