"NM ranchers: Venture threatens to leave area dry"
by John Fleck
Albuquerque Journal, Sunday edition, 10 April 2011
A company has proposed pumping water out of the Plains of San Augustin and piping it to the Rio Grande. Pictured is a water drink on the Pittman ranch for cattle and wildlife.
Richard Pipes - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press
DATIL, N.M. - Ray Pittman pulled his 1994 F-150 pickup to the top of a thinly wooded hill, a short walk from the water tank he built back in 1999 on his 1,300-acre ranch. A mile down the hill, Pittman's 540-foot-deep well pumps groundwater, pushing it up to the tank to provide for cattle on this remote patch of central New Mexico landscape. To the west, on the vast plain that makes up the Augustin Plains Ranch, a commercial venture has
proposed sinking 37 wells to pump groundwater and pipe it to the Rio Grande Valley to supplement dwindling water supplies of central New Mexico's farms and cities.
The Augustin Plains Ranch proposal would move 54,000 acre-feet per year of water to the Rio Grande Basin 50 miles away - enough water to meet the needs of a city the size of Albuquerque. In their application to the state, project backers were not specific about how the water would be used. The group declined repeated requests to provide further information. But it appears to be aimed at making up for a water shortfall in the rapidly growing Rio Grande Valley, either through direct use or replacing water removed from the Rio Grande by municipal or industrial users upstream.
Those in the central New Mexico ranch country where the water would start its journey fear the project would leave them high and dry.
Pittman and his wife, Carol, use a second well to provide water to two ranch houses, three horses, two donkeys, "six or seven cats," one dog and nine goldfish that call one of the stock tanks home. "People are afraid that this will deplete the aquifer," said Carol Pittman. "We all have wells."
The proposal would "essentially dry up the whole damn basin," said Albuquerque hydrologist Frank titus. Water would disappear from wells, said Titus, who investigated the issue on behalf of the Pittmans and other residents of the ranching community. He said he has received no financial compensation for his work.
The Augustin Plains Ranch proposal and a similar Project in eastern New Mexico, which would send water from the Fort Sumner area to Santa Fe, reflect entrepreneurial attempts to deal with a glaring New Mexico water problem.
The most detailed analysis, done for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission in 2004, found residents of New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Valley are using water at an unsustainable rate, consuming water faster than nature replenishes it. Albuquerque and Santa Fe have in the past few years started using water imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama Project, reducing their dependence on unsustainable groundwater pumping.
Cities also have been pushed to make up some of the shortfall by buying up agricultural water rights in the Rio Grande Valley and taking the land out of production to reduce irrigation use. To meet all municipal water needs would require taking nearly all the valley's agricultural land out of farming and shifting the water to city use, according to an analysis by the state Interstate Stream Commission. The search for alternatives has led to the proposals to pump water from rural New Mexico into the Rio Grande Valley.
"There's no question in my mind that at some point there may be a need to augment the Middle Rio Grande by bringing in some bulk water from somewhere," State Engineer John D'Antonio said. The proposals raise the specter of the Owens Valley, the California area dried up early in the 20th century to bring water to Los Angeles. Taking that water devastated the Owens Valley, D'Antonio said.
A company has proposed pumping water out of the Plains of San Augustin and piping it to the Rio Grande. Pictured is the San Augustine ranch which is one of the proposed sites. (Richard Pipes - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press)
Pictured is Ray Pittman with the 550 gallon tank that stores his water from the well in the foreground. (Richard Pipes - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press)
A company has proposed pumping water out of the Plains of San Augustin and piping it to the Rio Grande. Pictured are Ray Pittman and his wife Carol with maps of the area. (Richard Pipes - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press)