NM State Engineer: “You know, do we need to be looking at something like a severance tax on that water?”

Is an elaborate proposal to pump thousands of acre feet of water 150 miles to Albuquerque from the Augustin Plains Ranch (APR) in Catron and Socorro counties about to trigger a new policy for large scale water sales in New Mexico, treating water like oil and gas – including severance compensation as a political sweetener for such a deal?

It appears that is what the owners of the ranch, believed to be composed of international business folks, may ultimately accept to seal the pact on their application before the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) to annually mine 54,000 acre-feet of ancient water out of the aquifer sitting beneath some historical ranches and the home of the Very Large Array; and then pipe it north to greater Albuquerque.

When New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine was invited last Spring to address a meeting of the San Augustin Water Coalition (SAWC is a group of concerned residents of the San Augustin Plains) about the APR application, it appears he might have forecast where New Mexico’s water policy is headed.

At least as it might unfold in the last two years of the Martinez administration.

In the question and answer forum at the end of a rambling presentation, along with some references to his historical take on New Mexico water policy, Blaine posited:

“You know, do we need to be looking at something like a severance tax on that water?”

That quizzical pronouncement came after answering a question about whether a suburban area far away from the source of the water being more important than the needs of the community in which the water resides.

State Engineer Blaine had also stated earlier:

“As with beneficial use, there’s no one beneficial use better than another, in accordance with state statutes. We just talked about beneficial use of water.

“So there’s, there’s one use that doesn’t supersede another use; there’s not an area that supersedes another area. So, so the water pertinent to, ah, that’s appropriated out of the San Augustin plains; it isn’t more important to use it in, in Albuquerque than it is to use it here.

That may have been meant to assuage folks at the meeting, but then he followed with this statement that should be unsettling to any water policy folks who place the public’s right to water as a universal right ahead of claims of those who would treat it as a commodity, controlled by so-called free market rules:

“You know water, water is a market driven resource. And at, you know this kind of leads to, to very sensitive um question, and one of the things; you know I love AG. Man our Ag producers are, are the heart and soul of this state. Without the AG producers, you know, what have we got? And, and I look across the state of New Mexico and seventy per cent of our water goes to agricultural uses.” (Note: AG, is his apparent shorthand for the agricultural industry.)

“So how do you keep a basin whole that water is being transferred out of? How do you keep an area whole? You know those are questions that need to be thought about. You know if you transfer water from AG to municipal, and part of that AG industry dies, how’s that ever replaced, or repaired?

“You know, do we need to be looking at something like a severance tax on that water?” Blaine asked and continued.

“Water’s taken out of an area, you know, then you got to be, then you got to be putting money back in that area because the economic vitality of that area has no way of even recovery from that, because of water; there’s no water there’s no life.  So how do you balance some of these things? And these are tough questions that really need to be asked.”

Blaine wrapped up the Q&A with these comments:

“But my point is, the water issues in the San Agustin Plains, we need to talk about them. We need to figure out what a path forward is. Not just ‘hell no you ain’t taking my water, or hell yes I’m taking all your water.’

“I mean that bounds the problem. That gives you boundary on the left side, that gives you boundary on the right side.

“Really the solution is someplace in between there. And I am just highly encouraged with the creation of this organization because, because you are here to solve problems. And to figure out how this can be a benefit to your community. And if, and if the answer is ‘we ain’t going to back off, and we’re filing protests and, by golly you’re not going to hurt my feelings. I don’t take that personal. Ah, I respect that. 

“But if there’s some coming off of the left side of the boundary, and movement on the right side of the boundary, then that’s when we start looking at solutions that can happen for this big problem.”

Blaine also reminded people, “You know we’ve been moving water around New Mexico for a long time. Ah, prior to New Mexico even being a state, there was some transcontinental movement of water up in the Taos area.”

That certainly seemed a way of suggesting, with all the other hints, that APR’s plan is alive and not implausible as far as the state is concerned.

The people who live in the San Augustin Plains Basin have been fighting the APR application for several years; and they had some success when Mr. Blaine’s predecessor rejected the original application.

But several months after Tom Blaine’s meeting with residents last spring, APR filed and advertised for a re-application to mine 54,000 acre-feet of ancient water.

There were approximately 150 protests filed the OSE. These were added to the more than 900 previously filed against APR’s first application.

In the next installment on this issue The Candle will explore the objections raised by the people of Catron and Socorro Counties.

And a subsequent report will be posted soon, about what is being filed in the upcoming legislative session which would further the chances of public-private partnerships (P-3’s) being created as proposed by APR, and described on their website (click here for link to APR webpage on its public-private partnership sales pitch).

You can click on the links below to see the video of Mr. Blaine’s April 16, 2016, meeting with SAWC and his presentation and answers to questions asked by area ranchers and residents. 

(Editor’s note: The quotes used in this article have been transcribed from a video, and reflect the actual spoken words as the individual was stating them, versus a transcript with edits for repetitious words, or phrasings, etc.; not being critical of the person being quoted, as not that many people speak as flawlessly as when they set pen to paper, or digits to the keyboard.)

Video links: