'New Eco Friendly Water Pipeline' Probably Not All That Eco-Friendly

A proposed source of water for New Mexico's cities. Where have we heard this before? | Photo: mnchilemom/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's a little far afield from the Golden State, but ReWire got an emailed press release last week that piqued our interest. The release, concerning a water pipeline project in New Mexico, made the claim that powering that pipeline with solar and hydroelectric power would make that pipeline "eco-friendly." But something about the release raised our skepticism.

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Here's the release's first two paras:

NEW YORK CITY -- As New Mexico's drought and demand-driven water crisis continues to deepen, leaders from around the state are looking hard for viable, long-term solutions to both sustain the state's population growth and protect its fragile natural environment. One of the most promising options, the Augustin Plains Ranch project, was unveiled to the nation for the first time this week at the Global Infrastructure Leadership Forum in New York City.

The Augustin Plains Ranch, located in west-central New Mexico, is proposing to develop an eco-friendly, water reclamation and transport project that will pump 54 thousand acre-feet of water out of a massive underground lake and pipe it to communities in need anywhere from Santa Fe to Southern New Mexico. This "green" project will operate under its own electricity produced through hydro and solar power, and will replenish the aquifer over the years with rainwater and snowmelt that is currently being lost to evaporation. It is also expected to create hundreds of permanent jobs for New Mexicans.

As it happens, the Augustin Plains Ranch water project has been in the news for quite some time in New Mexico. As ReWire's pal and Western water maven John Fleck put it in a 2011 article in the Albuquerque Journal, 54,000 acre-feet per year is enough to meet the needs of the City of Albuqerque, and enough to make the current residents of the Augustin Plains area, near Datil, NM, rather nervous:

Those in the central New Mexico ranch country where the water would start its journey, though, fear the project would leave them high and dry.

[Rancher Ray] Pittman and his wife, Carol, use a second well to provide water to two ranch houses, three horses, two donkeys, "six or seven cats," one dog and nine goldfish that call one of the stock tanks home. The Pittmans and their neighbors fear the Augustin Plains Ranch water pumping project will dry up the landscape and way of life they hold dear. "People are afraid that this will deplete the aquifer," said Carol Pittman. "We all have wells."

The proposal would "essentially dry up the whole damn basin," said Albuquerque hydrologist Frank Titus. Water would disappear from wells used by people like the Pittmans, said Titus.

The Augustin Plains Ranch project has been through its ups and downs since first proposed in 2007. More than a thousand people wrote formal protests of the project. New Mexico's State Engineer denied the project's application in 2011; when developers Augustin Plains Ranch LLC went to court to ask the Engineer's decision be overturned, the court backed up the Engineer rather resoundingly in 2012.

Also in 2012, Augustin Plains Ranch LLC shifted their story on the project's hydrology to claim that they'd be shipping 54,000 acre-feet of water a year that would otherwise be lost to evaporation, causing Fleck and others to wonder aloud just where they'd heard that story before.

Now, activists at the Catron County Water Coalition are noting with alarm that project proponents seem to be trying to revive the project with better PR -- while concurrently appealing the court's November 2012 decision upholding the State Engineer. The PR sent to media outlets in far-flung places like KCET in Los Angeles would seem to be part of that.

Make no mistake: pumping water is an energy-intensive process, and we need to figure out a way to use renewable energy to do that pumping in the West. We here in California know that better than many: just one of the Department of Water Resources' pumps on the California Aqueduct, the Edmonston Pumping Plant, eats up 835 megawatts of electrical power to pump water up over the Grapevine. Half of the DWR's power consumption has traditionally been fueled by coal-fired plants: though the Department is working to reduce that amount, there's still work to do getting those pumps to run on renewable energy.

So powering a water pipeline's infrastructure with renewable energy is a good idea. But that doesn't make the pipeline "eco-friendly" all by itself. If the pipeline is pumping water out of an unrecharged aquifer to provide city dwellers with a way to water their lawns, it's not going to be "eco-friendly" even if you make it out of recycled hemp.

There's a word for the corporate practice of glossing over potentially destructive ventures with a thin green veneer. It's called "greenwashing." It's pretty prevalent, and as solar power becomes increasingly popular, solar will be used as a way to greenwash projects that might not otherwise pass the muster of public approval.

But we here in California pretty much invented deceptive water politics, Augustin Plains Ranch. We see your Milagro Beanfield War, raise you Chinatown, and call it. You're gonna have to get a lot slicker if you want to persuade us terminally jaded hipsters out here that your Owens Valley Lite isn't a bad deal for the environment: waving a solar panel at us isn't going to cut it.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

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Nice piece. As a resident of the area, may I add a comment on the propaganda piece the ReWire writer wasn't taken in by:
"...long-term solutions to ... sustain the state's population growth..."
The inanity of this phrase sums up the whole water-mining scheme. By definition, population growth has no long-term future, either in New Mexico or anywhere else in the world of limited natural resources. Is heroin a long-term solution to opiate addiction? Eating more, a long-term solution to obesity? Arresting more people, a long-term solution to overcrowded prisons?

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I live up the road from the Plains of San Augustin and have been following this and other water grabs around the southwest and the rest of the world. It is a little like the proposals by some politicians to have Medicare but pass it through private corporations (so they can wet their beaks a little). If New Mexico needs to mine fossil water (which is questionable), why would we give a private corporation a slice of the pie when we could do it ourselves?

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Chris, great article, thanks so much. Your radar for b^$%s!$# is dead-on. Thanks for adding "greenwashing" to my vocabulary.
Blaire McPherson, Glenwood NM