New Mexico rural-urban groundwater project denied

From this morning’s newspaper, my story about the New Mexico state engineer’s decision to deny a proposal to pump rural groundwater from rural western New Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley:

By failing to be specific about where the water was going, the project’s backers failed to meet the requirements of state law, Verhines ruled.

The project amounted to water speculation, which is illegal, said Bruce Frederick with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, one of the lead attorneys for a group of rural residents who fought to block the project. It is the second recent state ruling to conclude speculation is not allowed under state water law.

“All this ruling does is confirm what anybody who knows about water law and cares about water law already knew,” Frederick said Monday.

This project, the Augustin Plains Ranch proposal, is probably the least famous of three similar western water projects. As I wrote in an overview of the project last year, it would have moved 54,000 acre feet a year of water from the ranch country near the little town of Datil for unspecified uses in the Rio Grande Valley, where the bulk of New Mexico’s population lives.

It bears a striking similarity to the Cadiz project in California (similar in size, pumping an average of 50,000 acre feet per year from the Mojave Desert east of Joshua Tree National Park to coastal cities) and the much larger Southern Nevada Water Authority proposal (185,000 acre feet per year).

The legal decision here in terms of the big picture issues being discussed in these projects is quite narrow. While much of the political discussion in the Augustin Plains case surrounded area-of-origin questions – will the ranch communities where the water originates be harmed? – the New Mexico legal process never reached the point of considering that issue.

Instead, the State Engineer ruled that those proposing the project failed to clear a more preliminary threshold by not being able to specify who would use the water, where and how. In that regard Augustin Plains is very different from Cadiz and the Southern Nevada Water Authority projects.

Given that, I’m not sure there are any strong parallels to be drawn between this week’s New Mexico ruling and Cadiz or SNWA, beyond the fact that all three projects are evidence of strong pressure to do this sort of thing and the legal issues are sufficiently different here that the issues that led to the New Mexico decision don’t really apply to the other two cases.


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