Mining Water in the Desert

It began with a non-descript legal notice in the local paper, the kind of thing most people don’t ever really look at. The notice said that in Catron County, New Mexico, Augustin Plains Ranch LLC intends to drill thirty-seven twenty-inch water wells, down to a depth of 2,000 feet, to withdraw 54,000 acre-feet of water a year from the high desert aquifer. In case you’re not up on how much water that is: an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, so the proposal is to pump out over 17.5 billion gallons of water a year from these wells in the high desert country of New Mexico.

You might wonder what they intend to do with 17.5 billion gallons of water a year. The applicant, according to the legal notice available from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer,

“proposes to divert and consumptively use 54,000 acre-feet of ground water per annum for domestic, livestock, irrigation, municipal, industrial, and commercial purposes of use, to include “providing water to the State of New Mexico to augment its capacity to meet [Rio Grande Compact] deliveries to the State of Texas … at Elephant Butte dam,” and “[offsetting] effects of ground water pumping on the Rio Grande in lieu of retirement of agriculture” via a pipeline to the Rio Grande.”

As far as I know, to date not a single newspaper has run an article on this proposal, let alone investigated it, nor did the state hold any local hearings concerning it. What you are reading is exclusive to this website. Why? How is it that a proposal to deplete an aquifer in the high desert can go forward with only a small legal notice in the local paper? Who is responsible? Is there some backscratching deal with the state, so public rights become private profit once again? One hardly needs to ask the last question, of course. I guess it was rhetorical.

The state engineer will accept public responses if submitted by 16 December, 2007, but responses must meet certain conditions. The legal notice is somewhat limiting as to who can offer a response:

“Any person or other entity shall have standing to file an objection or protest if they object that the granting of the application will:

(1) Be detrimental to the objector’s water right; or

(2) Be contrary to the conservation of water within the state or detrimental to the public welfare of the state, provided that the objector shows how they will be substantially and specifically affected by the granting of the application.”

Let’s think about this, because almost exactly the same mentality governs this notice as governed a recent Michigan Supreme Court decision on a water mining case there. Note the provision here: that the “objector” has to show how they [he or she] wll be “specifically affected.” In Michigan, the Supreme Court – which has been ruled by a clot of Republican justices for some years now – decided in August, 2007, that the 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act, which allows “any person” to bring suit for environmental protection, nonetheless does not apply to “any person.” Rather, the Republican majority on the Court determined (following their own earlier decision of 2004, the clear wording of the Act itself notwithstanding) that individuals had to show concrete, particular injury to themselves in order to have legal standing. In other words, the law now extends only to property owners in the immediate area of a water mining project, for instance, and then only when they can show direct injury, which in practice means after the fact. That is, after the water is gone.

The moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken, who signed the Michigan Environmental Protection Act into law back in 1970, said that the 2007 Michigan Supreme Court decision went directly against the clear intent and wording of the law, which empowers citizens of the state. He should know. In effect, the Republican Supreme Court Justices unilaterally abrogated a key provision of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act so that a foreign corporation, Nestle, could mine water for profit from an aquifer in the state’s central lower peninsula. This, my friends, is Republican judicial activism in action.

I mention this Michigan Supreme Court decision because a similar limitation applies in the legal notice for the proposed massive water mining project in New Mexico: to object, one has to show that one’s own water right will be affected. The only leg for the concerned citizen to stand on here is the provision that one show the proposal is “contrary to the conservation of water within the state.”

So let’s investigate the idea of conserving water.

Under the San Augustin plains in this high desert country is an aquifer, what remains of a Pleistocene lake. The proposal is to extract billions of gallons of water and pump it through dozens of miles of pipeline to the Rio Grande River, where what doesn’t evaporate can be channeled into unsustainable agribusiness or other uses, what’s left trickling on down to Texas. As the aquifer is depleted by water mining, one can foresee that wells will fail for towns like Datil, and for the ranches in the vicinity, until eventually perhaps it will all become uninhabitable, a ghost region.

Obviously, this water mining project – probably greased with the usual sorts of unsavory government-corporate connivances – will not conserve water in this arid region. Even an imbecile could see that at a glance. Indeed, the project would pump out billions of gallons of ancient underground water and dump them into the shallows of the Rio Grande – until when? Until the aquifer is depleted? The whole profligate project is the very epitome of squanderville, so absurdly anti-conservationist that one can scarcely believe it has been proposed, let alone seriously considered.

From what I’ve heard, bellicose local ranchers and townspeople oppose the project, and perhaps they will prevail in derailing this particular water mining project. I hope they do. But their success in this instance, if it comes, will not change the American mining mentality, the inclination to deplete whatever can be depleted until there is nothing left.

This mining mentality explains a great deal about American attitudes toward the land more generally. I asked a group of university students recently what they thought would happen if this New Mexico water mining plan was approved. Would the water miners eventually stop? Or would they deplete the aquifer down to the very last drop if they could, and then kick a stone into the dry hole? I was curious to hear what the students would say.

They’d use it up, the students replied. Right down to their neighbors’ last drop.

ARTHUR VERSLUIS teaches American Studies at Michigan State University, and is author of various books, including Island Farm and The New Inquisitions. He can be reached via his website,