Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Water Grab Has Residents, Ranchers Ready For Fight

By John Larson

MAGDALENA – Ranchers, property owners, and individuals are not ready to give up over 17 billion gallons of water every year, or 6.9 million gallons of water per day, from the aquifer under San Augustin Plains without a fight.
Such a proposed water grab by a New York based company, San Augustin Ranch LLC – owned by Italian businessman Bruno Modena – is being protested by more than 900 individuals and entities, both private and governmental.
The San Augustin Water Coalition, formed by concerned residents of the area, hosted an informational meeting Tuesday, Nov. 10. An estimated 45 people from Socorro and Catron counties crowded into the meeting room at the Magdalena Public Library to hear comments by geohydrologist Frank Pettis, and New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney Bruce Frederick, who also has a Masters degree in hydrology from New Mexico Tech.
Moderator Don Wiltshire gave a brief summary of what’s transpired in the last two years.
He said protests began soon after a request for the permitting of 37 wells on the San Augustin plains was published in the form of a legal notice in the Mountain Mail in Nov. 2007.
The original proposal – which has since been amended - asked for permission to “divert and consumptively use 54,000 acre-feet 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.”
Wiltshire quoted from an open letter from Rep. Don Tripp, who wrote that “there will be more amendments to the present application or new applications to keep the issue alive, while trying to tear us down and end our objections.”
Tripp stated that “we must focus on what is at stake here – our water, which is the true life-blood of our families’ futures … we must not relax our vigilance.”
Tripp stressed that the attorneys for San Augustin Ranch LLC are looking to win the legal battle through a “war of attrition.”
The initial plan was to drill 37 wells with 20 inch casings approximately 2,000 feet deep within the exterior boundaries of Catron County, Socorro County, and Augustin Plains Ranch LLC.
In response to the notice, an overflow crowd of about 300 Catron County residents attended an informational meeting at Datil Elementary School Dec. 4, 2007 night concerning the proposed 37 wells.
The proposal was amended in May, 2008, to allow the drilling to go down 3,000 feet.
In the meantime, the Office of the State Engineer, had been struggling to keep up with validating hundreds of protest letters.
After the amended proposal was filed, several hundred new protests were submitted from residents and entities in the region.
Frederick said the total number of protests is over 900.
In addition to several hundred local property owners and ranchers, the list of protesters includes the University of New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish, Bureau of Land Management, Center for Biological Diversity, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Gila National Forest, Cibola National Forest, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, NRAO/Very Large Array, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
Locally, protesters include the Catron County Commission, Alamo Navajo Chapter, Quemado School district Magdalena Municipal Schools, Village of Magdalena, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Double H Ranch, Reserve Independent Schools, the Village of Reserve, Farm Service Agency, Socorro Electric Cooperative District V, and the Socorro Soil and Water Conservation District.
Pettis told the group that approval of the permit could have disastrous results for this region of the state, affecting not only private wells, but water levels for connecting sources, such as the Tularosa basin, which feeds the San Francisco River. The adjacent aquifer in the Gila region would also be affected.
Pettis is one of the most respected hydrologists in the state, having taught hydrogeology and geology at New Mexico Tech, and worked with the Department of Energy, the State Engineer as science advisor, and the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.
“I want New Mexico to grow, but to keep looking like New Mexico,” Pettis said.
Frederick said the protesters will be heard one at a time.
“This will be a lengthy process, and will take several months,” Frederick said. “I expect some protesters to drop out because they don’t want to pay the $25 fee. Maybe a third. But that still leaves with about 600.”
At the end of the meeting, a discussion was held on how to raise funds to pay the individual protesters’ fee to testify at the hearings.
Datil resident Carol Pittman said all donations are tax deductible. “Contributions should be made out to San Augustin Water Coalition,” Pittman said.
The address is San Agustin Water Coalition, P.O. Box 613, Datil, NM 87821.

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