A hearing on Tuesday in Socorro will determine whether a proposal to pump billions of gallons of water from the San Austin Plains is allowed to move forward.
In 2007 the San Augustin Plains Ranch applied for permission to pump and sell 54-thousand acre-feet of water each year. That’s about half the annual water usage of Albuquerque.
Because the ranch has not identified exactly how and where it intends to use the water, the application is in violation of state law, says Bruce Frederick with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. He says it’s surprising the State Engineer has even allowed the proposal to make it this far.
"Taxpayer money has been spent on processing the application, sending out notices...tens of thousands of dollars," he says, "and it's clearly an invalid applicaton. It's a waste of money. It's a waste of all of our time."
Hundreds of people and organizations have come out in opposition to the application, including several state and federal agencies.
About a hundred people packed into a Socorro courtroom this morning for a hearing on a case that both sides say could affect the future of water law in New Mexico. KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter Sidsel Overgaard has more.
The courtroom benches featured a potpourri of overalls, business suits, baseball caps and turquoise necklaces all walks of life brought together by a perceived threat to the community’s water supply.
At issue is a proposal by the San Augustin Plains Ranch to pump 54-thousand acre feet of water a year for use in the Rio Grande Basin.
Exactly what that use might be well that’s the big question. And that’s why Bruce Frederick with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center says the application is an obvious case of speculation and therefore illegal.
“What we’re against is anybody, the ranch or anybody else, locking up water as if it were a mineral that belonged to them just because it was below their property. That’s never been allowed in New Mexico and, as I said in the argument, if it were allowed then the first person to come to New Mexico would own all the water and sell it to the rest of us.”
Sherry Tippet, who represents irrigators in the case, says on its face the application is so clearly invalid, she’s surprised the State Engineer accepted it to begin with.
“In my view it never should have gotten this far. Most of the people at this hearing are farmers and ranchers, as are my clients, and it cost them a lot of time, money, enormous amount of stress because it’s a cloud over their title and it doesn’t have to happen.”
The applicant’s attorney, John Draper, sees things differently.
“If you accept the arguments of the protestants who are trying to dismiss this application they’re doing it on the basis that we had to know exactly how this water was going to be used before we filed. Now this is not something that’s required of the government.”
Draper points to the San Juan-Chama project as an example.
“That project was first proposed in the 1930s and it wasn’t until the 60s, the end of the 60s, they were still deciding exactly where some of that water was going to go.”
The question here, of course, is whether individuals should necessarily have the same rights as governments when it comes to a resource as crucial and limited as water.
“Should the government be subjected to a more relaxed standard is what I think you were asking in this context.”
Again, John Draper.
“Well you can do that but it would be a big change in the prior appropriation system in New Mexico which was meant from the beginning to encourage people-and not the government-people to bring the water from where it was to where it was needed.”
Liv Strand is one of the individuals protesting the application. “You know, there’s something called monopoly? When you own it all, when you own the whole resource, there’s no free enterprise.”
While the hearing examiner remains mum on what his recommendation to the State Engineer will be, Strand and most of her fellow protestants seemed to walk away from the hearing feeling optimistic. For Carol Pitman with the San Augustin Water Coalition, there’s just one thing giving her pause.
“I have no idea what the state engineer is like.”
That’s because Scott Verhines is new to the job.
“We have no information about, you know his particular ideas on anything but if good sense and good law prevails, I think we will win this one. I hope so.”
A decision could come in the next few weeks.
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