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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.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.