- Associated Press - Thursday, October 30, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The New Mexico Supreme Court has cleared the way for the state’s top water manager to continue considering an application by a commercial venture that calls for piping drinking water from western New Mexico to more populated areas.

The court this week denied a motion filed by a ranching family that sought to have the state engineer’s office toss the latest application submitted by Augustin Plains Ranch.

Company officials said they were pleased with the court’s decision. “We look forward to an extensive and thorough hearing that will demonstrate the tremendous value of the project,” company spokeswoman Whitney Waite said Thursday.

The state engineer’s office has been reviewing the application to determine if it meets state water codes. If it does, the agency will then schedule a public hearing.

Had the ranchers’ request been granted, attorneys with the state engineer’s office say that would have circumvented an administrative process spelled out by statute that governs how water is appropriated in the drought-stricken state.

The commercial venture’s previous application was rejected by the agency two years ago. It was one of the most contested filings in the history of the state engineer’s office, and critics have continued to raise concerns about the latest application.

The ranchers, Ray and Carol Pittman, argued before the Supreme Court that the application seeks to appropriate billions of gallons of water a year but fails to indicate how or where the water will be used.

Their attorney, Bruce Frederick of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, accused Augustin Plains Ranch of trying to position itself to speculate in future water markets and ultimately sell to the highest bidders.

In court filings, the state engineer’s office acknowledged the latest application describes places and purposes for the water that were not included in the first application.

The plan calls for drilling more than three dozen wells capable of pumping more than 17 billion gallons of water a year to supplement dwindling supplies in the Rio Grande Valley. The company would build a 140-mile pipeline to Bernalillo County as well as other infrastructure to capture runoff for recharging the aquifer beneath the San Augustin Plains west of Socorro.

The Pittmans and other residents in the San Augustin Plains area are concerned the pumping would eventually suck the aquifer dry.

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