The Water Grab on the Augustin Plains
Sierra Club: Southern New Mexico Group
by Mary Katherine Ray
The Plains of San Augustin are in south central New Mexico, and probably the most famous feature there is the Very Large Array telescope on the eastern side. Looking across the vast concave landscape ringed by mountains, it seems like an enormous bowl of grass and not much else, besides the occasional antelope.
The Plains are the remnant of what was once a huge lake. All the rain that falls on the surrounding mountains drains into the Plains. But for a lake to persist, the amount of rainfall has to exceed the amount of water that is lost from evaporation and percolation. Some 10,000 years ago, the Climate changed and the amount of rainfall decreased. Rain still runs off the mountains into the Plains, but the rate of percolation is so high, that rainwater soaks down into the aquifer faster than it falls. It turns out the basin is a leaky one, and this water doesn’t just go underground and stay there. A 1973 New Mexico Tech hydrology report concluded that the water seeping into the Plains leaks out from under them to supply the headwaters of the Gila River and probably the Alamosa River as well. (This means the Warm Springs waters that run into Monticello Box also seep from under the Plains.)
A water well application has been submitted to the New Mexico State Engineer’s office by Augustin Ranch LLC, which owns land near Datil at the north end of the Plains. The plan calls for drilling 37 wells with 20-inch well casings to a depth of 3,000 feet in order to pump out 54,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Augustin Plains aquifer. That is over 17 billion gallons that would be removed annually. It would probably be sold and piped over to the Rio Grande to make up for shortfalls caused by over consumption upstream. This amount could supply water to an entire city over twice the size of Las Cruces and could deplete the aquifer in only a few decades. Not only would neighboring landowners discover their wells running dry, surface springs will disappear and water that makes its way to the Gila and Monticello Box will wind up in the Rio Grande instead. The entire region will be placed at risk of catastrophic loss.
Sierra Club founder John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Never was that more true than about the Augustin Plains water grab. The list of protests received by the State Engineer’s office reveals how far-reaching the water grab actually is. Ranchers, concerned citizens, Indian tribes, acequias, and government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels have all submitted protests. You can still be involved even though the time for official protest has passed. If you’d like to help or to receive updates, contact Carol Pittman (firstname.lastname@example.org), who lives right next door to the proposed pumping sites.
Mary Katherine Ray is also a protestant who lives on the south side of the Plains.