Friday, December 19, 2008

Ranchers Taking A Stand In Agustin Plains Water Grab

By John Larson for Mountain Mail

SOCORRO, New Mexico (STPNS) -- A group of New Mexico ranchers is spearheading an effort to convince the state Legislature to change the regulations governing the jurisdiction of the Office of the State Engineer.

At the Joint Stockman’s Convention last weekend in Albuquerque, two resolutions were passed concerning the attempt by San Agustin Ranch LLC, a New York firm owned by Italian businessman Bruno Modena, to pump the San Agustin aquifer dry in order to sell water back to state entities.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the resolutions were voted on by representatives from the cattle growers, wool growers, Cowbelles, dairy farmers and New Mexico Federal Lands Council.

“This is where cattle growers develop their policies for the coming year,” Cowan said. “This is traditionally the largest agricultural gathering in the state. There were about 500 attendees from all over New Mexico and a few legislators.”

She said the cattle growers association alone boasts about 1,500 members.

“We’re concerned about the lack of authority the Office of the State Engineer has over deep wells,” Cowan said. “As it stands now, the drilling of deep water wells of non-potable water greater than 2,500 feet, exclusive of produced water, is presently outside the Office of the State Engineer’s jurisdiction. The San Agustin Ranch application is for 3,000 feet.”

She said the company amended its application to take it out of the State Engineer’s purview.

The company’s original application was to receive permission to “divert and consumptively use 54,000 acre-feet, or 17 billion gallons, of water yearly for domestic, livestock, irrigation, municipal, industrial and commercial uses to include providing water to the state of New Mexico to augment its capacity to meet deliveries to the state of Texas at Elephant Butte dam and offsetting effects of ground water pumping on the Rio Grande in lieu of retirement of agriculture via a pipeline to the Rio Grande.”

The original plan was to drill 37 wells with 20-inch casings about 2,000 feet deep within the exterior boundaries of Catron County, Socorro County and Augustin Plains Ranch.

The amended application requests deeper wells, 3,000 feet, and takes in a wider area that would be affected.

Cowan said the Cattle Growers resolution supports any efforts of the State Engineer to have jurisdiction over deep-water aquifers.

The second resolution passed last weekend is intended to underscore objections by the Cattle Growers and 500 residents of Catron and Socorro counties to the proposal by San Augustin Ranch LLC to drill the wells.

“We intend to convince the legislators that that this drilling effort will pose a harm to the public welfare of Catron County, as well as the public outside of Catron County and within the San Agustin Basin,” Cowan said. “Any proposed plan to extract such large volumes of water per annum will deplete the San Agustin Basin with no means of replenishing the basin once the water is gone.”

San Augustin Ranch is trying to convince officials that the plan would be in the state’s best interest. It promises to “provide water by pipeline to supplement or offset the effects of existing uses and for new uses” for central and northern New Mexico communities, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe, “in order to reduce the current stress on the water supply of the Rio Grande Basin,” according to the amended application.

“The state is allowing the water go to whoever’s got the money,” Cowan said.

Anita Hand of the San Agustin Water Coalition, based in Datil, said the San Augustin Ranch is speculating on the price of water.

“They have never actually come out here looking at the property. They’re water speculators and nothing more. They’re looking for a profit,” she said.

“If they start pumping that water, our wells are going to start drying up,” Hand said. “Most of our wells out here are two-to-three hundred feet deep and they’re wanting to go 3,000 feet deep.”

Hand said the water depletion would not only hurt the agricultural economy of the area, but also the wildlife.

“Our ranchers are providing water for wildlife,” she said. “With no water wildlife will not stay around.”

Hand said the water coalition urges all residents of the area to contact as many state legislators as possible.

“It looks like right now a big company can come in and just take the water without permission,” she said.” We have to make sure people are aware of this.”

© 2008 Mountain Mail Socorro, New Mexico. All Rights Reserved.

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