New Mexicans contest future water needs

ALBUQUERQUE – The thought of sinking more than three dozen wells in the San Augustin Plains of western New Mexico and pumping out billions of gallons of water each year to meet demands miles away has hundreds of New Mexicans riled up.

A group of rural residents, one of the state’s largest irrigation districts and others consider it a modern-day water grab. They say it flies in the face of a Western water doctrine that has been in place for more than a century to keep speculators from profiting off the sale of water to thirsty users.

“The issue really is as old as New Mexico,” said Bruce Frederick, an attorney who represents more than 80 people who are protesting the effort by the Augustin Plains Ranch, a New York-based commercial venture.

The jockeying for water started decades ago with efforts to divert the flow of New Mexico’s Rio Hondo. It continued with an attempt to tap into supplies in southern New Mexico for use across the border in Texas.

In just the last several years, water managers have faced at least three major proposals for either transferring or appropriating rights within New Mexico.

California and Colorado have also had their share of contested water-transfer proposals, and experts say more can be expected as communities look to drill wells and farmers consider selling their water rights due to drought and other environmental pressures.

At the heart of the latest dispute in New Mexico is the application filed by the Augustin Plains Ranch in 2007. One of the most contested applications in the history of the state engineer’s office, it calls for drilling 37 wells, each capable of pumping 2,000 gallons of water per minute.

In all, the company is asking to pump more than 17 billion gallons a year from beneath the plains for up to 300 years or until there’s no water left.

Whether there’s actually that much groundwater to be had is something the company is still researching, said attorney John Draper.

What the company is certain of is that demand has already outstripped supply along the Rio Grande and it’s bound to get worse as cities grow and as drought conditions persist – a problem familiar to many western states.

The company’s application suggests the water from the San Augustin Plains could be used for everything from irrigation and watering livestock to bolstering industry and augmenting dwindling supplies.