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Inter-basin Water Transfers: San Augustin Plains

No Water Here Means No Hunting, No Ranching, Stop the Drilling! -Activism of the San Augustin Basin Coalition

Written by Carol Pittman

I had never thought much about inter-basin transfers until a private corporation, the Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, applied to pump 54,000 acre feet of water per year from the Augustin Plains basin.  Our property borders the Augustin Plains Ranch.  The idea of removing that much water each year and transporting it to the Albuquerque urban area was surprising and alarming.  We were amazed that anyone thought that much water could be pumped from our semi-arid basin.

Our economy in northern Catron County is based on ranching and hunting.  Animals, like human beings, need water to survive:  agua es vida – water is life.  What do we as a community need to do to understand the implications of the plan to take away so much water?  To that end we asked several questions we felt must be answered before any serious consideration of such a large interbasin transfer could be taken seriously by the Office of the State Engineer.

The first question we asked is, “How much water is actually available in the Augustin Plains aquifer?”  No one is sure.

To answer that question, the hydrology of the basin must be understood.  Other important questions, similarly, can be answered only by understanding the hydrology of the basin.  Key among those is knowledge of the basin’s ability to recharge adequately.  Will there be water indefinitely because there is adequate recharge each year?  We are in the process of gathering all available information, which is somewhat scarce at this time.

A second question is, “How much water is actually needed now and in the future in the basin of origin?  Will an overly generous provision of water elsewhere engender waste and inefficient use of water?”

Predicting future water needs is tricky, of course, but the ability of our area to thrive will depend upon adequate water supplies, as might the health of the recipient area.  Is the enhancement of a recipient area worth depriving a more rural area of its natural endowment of water?

Quite often managers in the “go to” place can find other means, such as conservation, to provide water adequate for its needs.  Water managers have been surprised and gratified by conservation measures that have been successful beyond their expectations, and Albuquerque continues to find adequate water with methods that do not cause harm to other communities.

Third we need to ask, “To what degree are water rights in the Augustin Plains basin threatened by the proposed transfer, and is it worth it?  How much impairment is fair or even tolerable?  To date there is no adequate definition of impairment, and each case is decided by the State Engineer on essentially subjective grounds.  We feel that a legal definition of impairment is essential and hope to get legislation to that effect before the Legislature.

Perhaps the most essential question of all is — How do we use water from a finite source so that it best satisfies the needs and the rights of all concerned?  Certainly inter-basin transfers must recognize the needs of both rural and urban areas.  Politicians tend to emphasize the needs of wants of more populated and more economically productive areas.  Now legislation has been introduced in our legislature which more strongly emphasizes the rights of rural communities.   But it has not been successful, and so far emphasis has remained on urban needs.    As reported by the Utton Center, “In New Mexico, a recent failed attempt to pass legislation regulating inter-basin transfers highlighted both the perceived lack of regulation of large transfers and the institutional unwillingness to add hurdles, especially cost, for water transfer applications.  In the absence of such legislation, New Mexico’s legal landscape contains limited roadblocks to inter-basin transfers.”[i]   This must change.

The underlying question in all of this is “What is it we want for our communities, both urban and rural, both now and in the future?”  Remember, water taken from one area is almost always irretrievable in that area.  If water can be taken from our rural area in northern Catron County it can set a precedent for transporting water from all rural communities.  Is it not essential to protect the rights and needs of small groups as well as those of large groups?  Overriding the rights of the few for the benefit of a larger group (in our case for the profits of a corporation) will not benefit New Mexico communities of any size.

[i] From the Utton Center Report on Inter-basin Water Transfers, Water Matters, p. 19-2, 2015.  http://uttoncenter.unm.edu/pdfs/water-matters-2015/2015-water-matters.pdf

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