An Aquifer From the Ice Age Becomes a Battleground in New Mexico
By Eleanor Bravo
Imagine: a deep, pristine aquifer persists without incident for more than 11,700 years in the Valley of San Augustin. It is revered and left unmarred by the community members who know of its existence, utilizing it respectfully and sustainably, leaving it intact—from the Ice Age until 2008. That is when a New York-based company, Augustin Plains Ranch LLC, owned by an Italian billionaire, decided to set up its operation and apply for a permit to invade the aquifer by extracting 54,000 acre feet of water per year.
Located in west-central New Mexico, the groundwater present in the aquifer dates back to the latest Ice Age and is fed by no permanent streams. The basin is replenished primarily from the intense thundershowers during late summer months. Southern New Mexico generally averages less than 10 inches of rain a year. For more than 10 years, neighbors of the ranch have fought to oppose water mining and potential destruction of the aquifer. With present drought conditions and rising temperatures, it's possible that if allowed, this volume of extraction would render the aquifer non-existent.
This lengthy battle has united improbable allies: conservative ranchers, indigenous people, small business owners, rural residents and conservationists in a broad coalition of local opposition. Why? New Mexicans get 85 percent of their drinking water from groundwater. Water mining in huge quantities eventually causes a "cone of depression." As water continues to be pumped at an unsustainable rate, the underground flow moves toward the wells that are pumping. As nearby wells begin to dry up, the cone of depression widens, and more and more wells go dry.
Where Would the Water Go?
Only about 700 people live in the area of the San Augustin Valley. It is a sparse but elegant landscape, also home to the Very Large Array (VLA), a component of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). The VLA comprises 27 independent antennae, 25 meters in diameter each weighing 209 metric tons. It is a multi-purpose instrument designed to allow investigations of astronomical objects. The Association has been one of the parties protesting against Augustin Plains Ranch's permit applications.
After many bumps and turns, opponents and proponents of the project awaited yet another ruling by the State Engineer after three applications by the company. This was clearly a last-ditch effort by Augustin Plains Ranch, in hopes that the present administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, with their favoritism toward big business, would produce a different outcome.
The plan, if approved, called for 17 billion gallons of water per year to be extracted through 37 wells. A geological study concluded that "data used to generate storage estimates, aquifer properties, subsurface geology are sparse, making it difficult to accurately assess impact of the proposed project." This prehistoric underground lake could potentially be drained, leaving residents, livestock and wildlife with no water source and changing the fragile desert ecosystem forever.
Where would this extracted water go? That has been a question that has not been definitively answered all these years. According to the company, water pumped from the aquifer would be piped 140 miles to Bernalillo County, which is adjacent to the Rio Grande River, and could be purchased by anyone along the way to supplement water shortages, enhance stream flows and benefit fish and wildlife. But environmentalists do not support stealing water from one area to procure water for the Rio Grande.
Rio Rancho, a growing community outside of Albuquerque, was one of the possible destinations. Sandoval County where Rio Rancho is located is presently considering permits for horizontal drilling from oil and gas companies. The Sandoval County Commission is considering zoning the county and making some rural, less densely populated areas available for drilling and protecting other areas in a discriminatory policy that benefits wealthier, more populated areas. Horizontal drilling and subsequent fracking are highly water-consumptive processes, and Rio Rancho public utility water bills have skyrocketed. The possibility that the aquifer's wealth of water is being targeted in order to prop up fracking needs is very real. Agriculture is another potential destination—shoring up the New Mexico chile industry was mentioned as an option.
The Billionaire's Bad Luck—For Now
Ultimately, the State Engineer denied this third application for permit calling the venture "speculative." The Office of the State Engineer explained their decision: "After carefully considering all aspects of the application, the State Engineer determined that the applicant failed to identify specific quantities of water for specific identified beneficial uses which are requirements under state law for a water right to be developed."
Carol Pittman, a resident of the area for 20 years who has led the opposition, rejoiced at the decision, saying: "Rural communities throughout the state can celebrate the denial of the Augustin Plains Ranch LLC's application to mine water in the aquifer of the Plains of San Augustin. Should the application have been approved, every rural community would be vulnerable to the threat of water being moved from a rural area to an urban area, a prospect not even supported by urban areas." As a founding member of the San Augustin Water Coalition, Pittman and other members also regularly traveled to Albuquerque to register their opposition to the proposed Santolina planned community that would have ultimately purchased the San Augustin Plains water.
The fight for water has not come to an end, and the decision is facing an appeal, but the proper management of our natural resources has come into question. We cannot bow to the short-sighted demands of private entrepreneurs wanting to make a profit from the commons while compromising fragile ecosystems. The Water Coalition is hopeful that there will be no more applications and that the Plains are finally free to replenish as they have for thousands of years.
Food & Water Watch is proud to have assisted the members of the Water Coalition in this long-term struggle. Carol Pittman has become a great friend to us and we appreciate her acknowledgement:
"To help save our water resources in the Plains of San Augustin, New Mexico Food and Water Watch provided support to our rural community. Without such help the prospect of our small population winning the battle against an international corporation would have been much more difficult."
Eleanor Bravo is Food & Water Watch's National Pipeline Campaign Manager, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.