Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
SILVER CITY – Should the river run wild, or be managed and controlled? Should New Mexico take the water or leave it?
The Gila River twists through pine forest and desert canyons, slips past popular campgrounds and runs between the small towns of Cliff and Gila on its way to Arizona, largely uninterrupted but for irrigators’ ditches and the occasional beaver dam.
By year end, the Interstate Stream Commission must decide what to do with a nearly $100 million settlement that could be used to pull water out of the river for consumers, for conservation efforts or both. It’s a decision that will determine the river’s future and likely have ripple effects on state water policy going forward.
Despite hundreds of public meetings held since the Arizona Water Settlement Act was signed in 2004, granting New Mexico federal dollars and a chance to buy an additional allotment of water from Arizona, stakeholders say the issue has become more polarizing, not less.
“We tried to build a consensus for a couple of years, and then it became apparent that there wasn’t a consensus to be had,” said ISC Director Estevan López.
The AWSA affords New Mexico the right to consume an additional 14,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River per year, a nearly 50 percent increase from the current limit of nearly 31,000 acre feet per year. But the question of how to take that water – or whether it should be taken at all – has proved divisive.
The decision “is a road map for New Mexico’s future,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat and chairman of the senate’s water conservation committee. “Do we conserve, do we build dams, or do we do both?”
To divert or not to divert
The ISC has whittled down several dozen proposals to 15 potential projects.
Three would skim the “new” water from peak river flows and store it for release to end users, which could include farmers and ranchers in Grant, Luna, Catron or Hidalgo counties, or Deming residents.
The Act does not permit a dam across the main river, but smaller dams could divert water to tributaries for storage.
Twelve proposals would forego the 14,000 acre feet of water per year in favor of spending the funding on enhanced conservation efforts, together estimated to save about 28,000 acre feet of water annually.
Those who favor a conservation approach and oppose a diversion say they want to protect the river from any intervention that could put the habitat or endangered species at risk. Proponents of a diversion say they want to secure water for future generations and seize a water allotment that New Mexico fought over for decades.
“Healthy, free-flowing rivers are disappearing in the Southwest,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “This is the last free-flowing river in the state. We’re the land of enchantment, and we value our wild places like the Gila Wilderness.”
The Gila River is often regarded as the state’s last “wild” river. While that might be an overstatement – Freeport-McMoran already diverts water to its copper mine in Grant County and irrigators and others move water to their fields through ditches, while others tap into river water through wells – conservationists say a major water diversion could harm an ecosystem that is fed by natural floodwaters.
David Ogilvie’s U-Bar ranch abuts the river. Diverting water into a reservoir could provide greater regularity, ensure the water supply and protect landowners from floods, he said.
“I really think this is a one-time opportunity to secure water for our kids and grandkids,” he said.
The water settlement act made available $66 million – nearly $100 million today, accounting for inflation – that could go toward any of the 15 ideas. Additionally, New Mexico can potentially tap another $62 million to put toward a water diversion project only.
The 12 non-diversion projects would cost a total of $82 million altogether, according to the ISC.
A recent study by engineering consultant Bohannan Huston pegged the cost of diverting water, including a reservoir, at between $280 million and $469 million, depending on the site and the plans.
That does not include the cost of the water. Under the settlement agreement, New Mexico would have to pay Arizona the cost of delivering an equal amount of water to the Gila River Indian community – water that would come from the Central Arizona Project that serves Phoenix.
“That ongoing cost would have to be borne by someone in addition to the debt service on millions in construction costs,” said Kurt Albershardt, owner of the Murray Hotel in Silver City, which serves tourists to the Gila Wilderness.
ISC Director Lopez says the mission of the nine-member ISC board will be “to reap the benefits of the Act in a way that would protect the unique ecology of that region but also take into account future water conditions,” Lopez said. Studies into the economic, ecological and other merits of the proposals will be ongoing into the summer, he said.
Siwik and others express frustration that, nine years into the process, there are so many unknowns.
“Here we are at the 11th hour,” she said, “and some of these major questions are still unanswered.”