Water speculators are threatening Catron County’s water. Will yours be next? The Augustín Plains water mining case, the subject of litigation and fierce community resistance, could set a precedent affecting every New Mexican in the years to come. Where do big cities and profiteers look when they need more water? They look to smaller communities, those without economic clout or a political voice, those they view as easy targets. Catron County, however, is not going down without a fight.
Almost 10 years ago, an organization called the Augustín Plains Ranch LLC proposed to drill 37 wells to a depth of 3,000 feet in order to pump 17 billion gallons of water every year from the Plains of San Augustín. Yes, that’s billion, with a B. The citizens of Catron County have held off these water predators for almost a decade. But the water mining application, twice denied by the State Engineer and the state courts, has been submitted once again.
The Augustín Plains basin currently provides water for families and ranchers, with underground water reaching as far as the Gila River to the south and the Río Grande to the east. Water pumped from the Augustín Plains, according to the application, will be piped to Albuquerque.
Why should this concern the people of northern New Mexico? All New Mexico residents are aware that water is a scarce resource here in the Southwest. The West was settled because the diversion of rivers and other surface waters made it possible to deliver water where it was needed. Surface water could be moved from where it flowed naturally to where it could be put to work on behalf of the human population. Pipelines carrying water from the huge dams on the rivers of the Southwest are a well-known example. Groundwater has not thus far been moved on a massive scale. If this application to mine water in the Plains is approved, it will set a precedent that could prove to be very, very important to each and every resident of New Mexico.
Virtually all New Mexicans depend on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. What happens when a large amount of groundwater is pumped out of the ground? In a phenomenon known as “the cone of depression,” as water continues to be pumped at an unsustainable rate, the underground flow moves toward the wells that are pumping. First, nearby wells begin to dry up. Over time, the cone of depression widens, and more and more wells go dry. In the case of the Augustín Plains, should this kind of water mining go forward and continue, eventually every ranch, every small town, every subdivision, every home that relies on the Plains aquifer, would find itself without water. Even the Gila River would feel the loss of underground water.
In the 21st century, the distribution of water will become perhaps the most critical—and hotly disputed—issue that the world will face. In an arid state like New Mexico, how will this distribution be decided fairly? Is it wise or sustainable to move water from a rural to an urban area?
Let us begin to answer that question by asking another: What is the best method to assure sustainable water supplies throughout our state? Surely the answer is not to drain a rural area of its water to supply urban areas. This scheme simply assures that both the rural and the urban area will not have a sufficient water supply in the long run.
In the specific case of the Augustín Plains, water in the basin is “fossil water.” That means the water was left there thousands of years ago as the Earth changed and the southwestern part of our continent became drier. In our present day, there is not enough recharge of the aquifer to replace 17 billion gallons of water being removed. At the rate of pumping proposed, eventually there will no longer be water in the aquifer.
As the “cone of depression” widens, the effect of the pumping also widens. The water table drops, plants and trees begin to disappear, sufficient grazing for livestock no longer exists, the habitat for wild animals disappears, and—highly concerning for all of us—wells that provide drinking water for human beings go dry. Or to put it another way, eventually life will no longer possible on the Plains.
If you are an urban dweller, your water supply has also dried up, and you are no better off than the dwellers of the Plains.
This is a test case for sustainable water planning throughout the state. What the case will really force us all to do is look at water and its distribution in a new way. No longer will it be possible to make decisions that are local or even regional. Looking at a sustainable water supply will require a “big picture” of the availability of water and its highest and best use everywhere in the state.
So, here are some important questions to ask: Is urban growth New Mexico’s highest priority? Moving water out of rural areas to the city will encourage that growth, and the mantra that urban growth is good will have to be questioned. This need to grow is based on the assumption that the economy will grow only if the population grows. Is that really true?
How important to the state is the rural population and the agricultural products these ranchers and farmers provide? Because rural populations tend to be small, the political clout of agricultural communities is less than that of urban settlements. Is this the correct basis for making decisions about water?
As a state, New Mexicans need to ask the right questions and expect them to be considered. Making big decisions about water should not be based on what an international corporation wants to do to make a profit or on what a politician wants to do to get elected. Making decisions about water, literally life-and-death decisions, must be based on scientific information and on what is best for everyone.
Carol and Ray Pittman run a small ranching operation in Datil, New Mexico. They are active in opposing the project to mine water in the Plains of San Augustín. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
ABQ Bernalillo County Water Authority’s $1 million partnership with the Nature Conservancy
Water managers from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have announced a $1-million, five-year partnership with The Nature Conservancy to protect the San Juan-Chama watershed. With officials from the nonprofit conservancy, Triple H Solar and PNM, they gathered last month at the San Juan-Chama’s Drinking Water Treatment Plant to dedicate the utility’s new 1.5 MW, 11-acre solar array. The $3.5 million facility is expected to provide 10 percent of the plant’s power, saving ratepayers $6 million over 25 years.
Wildfires have become more frequent and severe. The partnership will support the Río Grande Water Fund’s efforts to restore 600,000 acres north of Albuquerque by thinning overcrowded trees and undergrowth at the headwaters at the Río Grande and Río Chama, restore streams, manage fire and heal burned lands. The Río Grande Water Fund leverages public/private funding to increase thinning from Taos to Albuquerque to improve the health and safety of forests and protect water for one million people in New Mexico. The Río Grande provides about three-quarters of the Albuquerque metro area’s water supply.
Earlier this year, the Taos Ski Valley Foundation donated $250,000 to The Nature Conservancy for the Río Grande Water Fund. The foundation’s previous funding made possible a tree-ring study, which confirmed that there were low-intensity fires every 11 to 43 years in Taos-area forests dating to the 1300s.
Judge rules portion of hearing on Santolina development ‘unfair’
Last month, a district judge ruled that the Bernalillo County Commission did not grant community advocates a fair hearing when it approved the “Zone Map Amendment” (from rural agricultural to planned communities) for the proposed Santolina development. The judge let stand the commission’s approval of the Level A Master Plan. Both were approved by a 3-2 vote. Bernalillo County’s planning commission has been considering approval of the Level B Master Plan.
Santolina is an approximately 90,000-plus person development proposed for 22 square miles of Bernalillo County on the southwestern edge of Albuquerque. Santolina’s water use would be roughly equivalent to Río Rancho’s annual use. There have been conflicting statements as to where the water will come from.
Judge Franchini’s decision comes more than 18 months after community advocates, including the Southwest Organizing Project, Pajarito Village Association and the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group, asked the court to overturn the commission’s approvals. The organizations are represented by the nonprofit, public-interest law firm, New Mexico Environmental Law Center.