Whether the owners of the Copper Flat Mine near Hillsboro can transfer the rights to leased water the mine must have to reopen operate will be determined at a protest hearing to be held by the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer next September.
As a result of a special Water Adjudication Court decision in 2017, New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) lost most of the water rights it hoped to use to operate Copper Flat Mine, the defunct open pit mine near Hillsboro. NMCC has appealed this decision to the New Mexico Court of Appeals (see Related stories below), but the court case is not definitive because, even without its own water rights, the project can lease water. And that is the gambit that was tried next. Last year, in a work-around effort to make up for its lost water rights, the Australian investment company that owns NMCC leased rights to 2,400 acre feet of water a year. It applied to the state engineer for permission to move those rights from the Sunland Park/Santa Teresa area near El Paso to Copper Flat’s production wells about four miles from Caballo Lake and the Rio Grande River.
The application was immediately protested by more than 70 water rights owners in both the Caballo and the Santa Teresa areas, by individuals and businesses and by public and private organizations with interests in groundwater and surface water in southern New Mexico. While The Sun was on its summer break in August, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer scheduled the protest hearing for next year. It will be held on September 12-16, 2022.
The hearing is definitive because it will determine if water use at the mine is damaging. A decision in favor of the protestants will kill the mine permanently. Even if the mine owners decide to appeal the hearing decision all the way to the New Mexico Supreme Court, the hearing will have established that there is not enough water in this area to mine with.
Though the hearing is a year away, NMCC has already started its litigation process by asking protestants for their supporting evidence, documentation, correspondences, notes, research findings, public statements and any piece of writing relating to the mine or its application. This is the first phase of a legal litigation. Unlike permit hearings, the protest hearing will not be a place for the public to express its opinions. It will be a mini-trial, following the same procedures as a courtroom trial, except that it will be presided over by an OSE hearing officer rather than by a judge.
NMCC has initiated what is called the “discovery” phase of a litigation. During discovery, all parties gather their evidence and their witnesses. They inform the hearing officer and each other of these documents and their intention to call witnesses to establish facts and expert witnesses to express their opinions. Everyone has a chance to challenge those documents and witnesses.
The litigation moves on to a decision by the hearing officer about what will be allowed as evidence and proof based on the written arguments of the various parties.
The hearing itself will proceed like a trial, with the calling of witnesses, the citing of allowed documents, etc. After it ends, the hearing officer will submit a recommendation to the State Engineer based on her determinations about five issues.
The first two are determinations of fact:
• Availability of water to satisfy the application.
• The nature and extent of the water right.
The final three are judgment calls:
• Whether granting the application would result in impairment to existing water rights.
• Whether granting the application would be detrimental to the public welfare of the state.
• Whether granting the application would be detrimental to the conservation of water within the state.
Prominent among the protestants are agricultural water users. Two ranches—the Pitchfork and the Ladder—are adjacent to the mine. The 1,000-foot-deep pit that will be created during the mine’s excavations will deplete the neighboring groundwater, as it flows continuously into the pit and evaporates.
The wells of small farmers along Animas Creek, including the prominent Animas Creek Nursery, may be directly impaired by pumping from the mine’s nearby production wells. Farmers south of the mine’s production wells fear similar impacts on their water resources, which are now, because drought conditions reduce their surface allotments, more dependent than ever on groundwater. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District speaks for its member-farmers’ water concerns and its water-sharing agreements with other entities and organizations.
Texas irrigators are represented by the Rio Grande Compact Commission for the State of Texas, which fears that river flows will be reduced by the withdrawal of water from wells close to the Rio Grande, as well as by a reduction of surface flows into the river as a result of the mining operation. New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission is protesting because of the threat to New Mexico’s ability to meet its water-release obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.
Both Santa Teresa Land development company and Rio Grande Turfgrass—the company that presently leases the water rights that the mining project proposes to transfer—want the rights to remain in Santa Teresa.
In addition, numerous domestic water users and four public water authorities from Hillsboro to Animas Creek and Caballo south to Sunland Park think their water supplies might be impacted by NMCC’s projected water use. Environmental groups Sierra Club and Gila Resource Information Project have joined the protest to protect the flora and fauna along Animas Creek and the Rio Grande.
NMCC has said in its Mining Operation and Reclamation Plan—submitted to the state and to the Bureau of Land Management as part of its applications for mining—that it needs some 6,100 acre feet a year of fresh water to mine (that is, some two billion gallons a year, which is a little over one third of the amount of water that was in Caballo Lake as of the first of September). The leased water rights whose transfer is being protested would seem insufficient to reopen the mine. What the protest hearing will determine, however, is whether this large amount of water can be permanently removed from the local aquifer without damaging downstream water users. Unlike irrigation and domestic water uses, mining so pollutes the water that no return flow can be allowed. All of the water used by the mine for its expected 12 operating years will be evaporated into the air.
The debate at the hearing will focus narrowly on groundwater rights, but water being water—moving and flowing back and forth between the Rio Grande and adjacent aquifers—the issues can easily get larger. At heart, the dispute between NMCC and the protestants arises from our normally inherent scarcity of water. We live in an arid climate, but we want to act as if we do not. We want to water ski in the desert. That permanent scarcity is exacerbated by the present drought. And the drought’s probable continuance in the short term, coupled with the accruing effects of a hotter and drier climate in the long term, makes the hearing’s outcome triply important for the area’s future. If the mining projects wins the OSE hearing, then we have lost 24 billion gallons of water permanently that would have supported cities, farms and recreation throughout southern New Mexico and further south.