A proposed project to pump billions of gallons of water from under the San Agustin Plains in Catron County could mean more water for Rio Rancho and other cities in this area, but residents near the plains and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center believe it would be harmful.
Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, owned by a family in Italy, proposes to collect rain water in the San Agustin Plains in Catron County, allow it to soak into the aquifer there for storage and then send it via pipeline to cities needing water in the Middle Rio Grande area. Michel Jichlinski, who’s directing the project, said it would supply 54,000 acre-feet of water per year to customer cities and replenish the aquifer with rainwater.
Since an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, 54,000 acre-feet is approximately 17.6 billion gallons, almost half of what Albuquerque uses in a year.
“This is a project where a city like Rio Rancho, for example, could really benefit from what we’re proposing,” Jichlinski said.
However, others say the feat isn’t possible, at least not without depleting the aquifer and harming people in the San Agustin Plains area who need the water.
“I think it’s an absurd notion on the face of it,” said New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney Bruce Frederick of the proposal of pumping 54,000 acre-feet a year and replacing it with rain water.
Frederick has opposed the company’s attempt to get a pumping permit.
To meet the company’s goal, he said each acre in the proposed project area would have to produce 12 acre-feet, or 3.9 million gallons, of water each year.
Augustin Plains Ranch submitted an application for a pumping permit to the Office of the State Engineer about five years ago. About a year ago, the validity of the application was denied because the Ranch wasn’t specific about how it would use the water, Jichlinski said.
Frederick said the company appealed the decision to district court and, since the district court upheld the decision, has now appealed to the state Court of Appeals.
The Ranch’s application was too vague for anyone to know what planners had in mind, despite the specifics they’ve been speaking of, he said.
“What they say outside their application doesn’t really matter,” Frederick said.
The vagueness violates water law, he said, so the company will have to submit a new application with concrete details if it wants to continue.
Meanwhile, Jichlinski would like to have communities in the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho/Santa Fe areas commit to buying water if the Ranch gets the project approved. The cities wouldn’t have to pay for any water they didn’t get, and their support would allow the company to specify where the water was going and thus reapply for a permit, he said.
Jichlinski said the water project could provide water for less expense than buying water rights, and could provide water even during droughts.
He hopes to move forward within this year, do the necessary research and have water running north in five years.
The investment to make the project happen, including a $500 million construction estimate, would come from private investors, as it has thus far, Jichlinski said. Municipalities would only pay for the water they received.
In addition to the issues of drought cycles and population growth, he said global warming will also cause less snow pack, but also a possible increase in water from violent monsoons.
Because of the geology of the plains, he said, when it rains there, the water has nowhere to go. Some moisture soaks into the aquifer, while the rest evaporates.
The company’s idea is that if it can catch the water in manmade pools instead of allowing it to spread out, most of it would rapidly soak into the aquifer rather than evaporate. Jichlinski said the aquifer would store the water until the company pumped it.
The water would then provide supplemental water for cities, meaning less stress on the Rio Grande, he said. After the cities used the water, Jichlinski said, it would be cleaned and put into the river.
Plus, planners believe the project could prevent water being taken away from people with newer water rights, as state law allows, to meet other commitments during a severe water shortage. People who own older water rights legally receive priority in a shortage, and New Mexico has an agreement with Texas to make sure a certain portion of water in the Rio Grande gets to the Lone Star State.
Because the plains are at 7,000 feet in elevation and this area is at 5,000 feet, Jichlinski said, he expects to be able to pipe water north to the Albuquerque area without energy, although the Rio Grande flows south. He said Rio Rancho could get water at a fraction of the price it does now because there would be no fuel cost.
The flow could run a hydropower plant to power 75 percent of the well field in the plains, he said. The rest of the power the wells needed would come from solar energy collected on the plains, Jichlinski said.
“The problem we’re having is that we have not found a structure in which we can develop the project in which all of the state stakeholders are comfortable,” Jichlinski said.
Whitney Waite, who’s doing public relations for the Ranch, said to do enough research to tell the real effect of the project would cost millions. Therefore, she said, the company can’t do the research until the Office of the State Engineer allows them to move forward.
However, it’s difficult to get approval to move forward without the research.
Jichlinski said there are no water rights for the water he wants to pump out of the aquifer because the water his project would collect is evaporating instead of being used now.
“It’s not like we’re taking water rights from someone who has them,” he said, adding that the Ranch still needs a permit for the work.
There is a question about how much water from the San Agustin Plains aquifer leaks into other river systems.
“Some people think it’s a lot; some people think it’s a little,” Jichlinski said. “No one really knows for sure.”
The company would need to understand that issue, he said, which would require research.
The Ranch also needs to address whether the pumping would cause the water level in existing wells to drop. If it did, the company would need to provide deeper wells, power to pump them or water from the project.
Jichlinski said preliminary research doesn’t indicate there would be a problem.
During a drought, Jichlinski said, the aquifer would go down. However, he said it holds an estimated 50 million acre-feet of water, and preliminary research indicates pumping it for 300 years with only the current recharge from rainwater would deplete the aquifer by just 17 percent.
The whole of the plains, of which the well field would take up a small part, is 1 million acres, Jichlinski said, and receives more than a foot of rain a year.
The National Weather Service office in Albuquerque reports that Quemado, a nearby community, had an average yearly precipitation of 12.37 inches from 1981 to 2010, and the plains would likely have just a little less.
New Mexico receives 85.3 million acre-feet of precipitation per year, but only 2 million get into the water systems before evaporating, he said.
“There’s a lot of water that’s lost,” Jichlinski said.
However, area residents are far from convinced by Jichlinski’s statements.
“It threatens wells for miles, and nobody wants their wells to go dry so these people can make a kabillion dollars,” said Carol Pittman, a founding member of the Water Coalition in Magdalena, a small community near the plains.
Pittman said no one has researched the plains aquifer since the 1970s, but a hydrologist who did study it doesn’t think the Ranch can replenish the aquifer as planned. The company has nothing to back its claims, she said.
Magdalena activist Matt Middleton said if the Ranch is able to pump as it desires, wells in the area would probably drop 30 feet per year immediately. That situation would hurt ranchers who need the water for livestock, he said.
Middleton said the aquifer is connected to the Gila River and Rio Grande systems. Nobody knows exactly what the impact of the proposed pumping would be, but it would be serious, he said.
“It seems like common sense has really been abandoned here,” Middleton said.
He called the idea that the company could replenish the aquifer with rainwater “absurd,” especially because of the size of the area. Plus, Middleton asked, what would the plan do to wildlife?
If the Ranch’s plan went through, he said, foreign investors would get New Mexico water and sell it back to state residents at a huge profit.
“The very idea of foreign ownership of water is a really, really bad idea,” Middleton said.
He also questioned if it’s fair that growth be allowed to the detriment of rural communities.
Plus, Middleton expects violence if the project were allowed.
“Water’s too precious to allow someone to do this when it all comes down to, really, is money,” Middleton said. “It’s unethical.”