Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Norman Gaume remembers three attempts to create a large diversion dam on the Gila River in southwest New Mexico.
All three plans promised more water and more revenue for farmers. All three failed. Gaume, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission and former water resources manager for the city of Albuquerque, says the latest diversion effort may be doomed to follow the same path.
On July 2, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) entity that oversees projects using federal money in the New Mexico Unit Fund slashed several components from the proposed Gila River diversion. The cuts reduced the project’s price tag by about $83 million, but also the amount of water that could be diverted and used for irrigation.
It’s the latest in a decades-long saga of how federal money should be spent on water projects in the southwest corner of the state.
Joe Runyan is the CAP entity representative from the Gila Farm Irrigation Association in the Cliff-Gila Valley. He said the Gila diversion project had been “dramatically minimized” since its beginnings, making it cost-effective and beneficial to farmers and other water users in the region.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to give future generations access to this water,” Runyan said. “We should be at the table when it comes to accessing Colorado River water. The next generation will be glad we did.”
Gila diversion supporters say the diversion project will improve regional agriculture and provide a sustainable water supply for rural areas during drought. But years of back-and-forth between the CAP entity, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation – and a looming federal deadline – have prevented much progress toward that goal.
Opponents argue the diversion is expensive and will benefit only a few irrigators at great detriment to the region’s environment.
“There’s no hope of this project on its merits, but unfortunately we live in a time when merits don’t always matter,” Gaume said at a New Mexico Wildlife Federation lecture in Albuquerque this past week. “The whole thing is upside down. It’s just a mess, and a shame.”
New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who are all Democrats, oppose the diversion.
Commission members are appointed by the governor. Lujan Grisham hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make an appointment, but in April she did veto $1.7 million in funding requested by the ISC for Gila diversion planning and design. She also promised to end the project in her October 2018 water plan published during her campaign.
Gaume said if Lujan Grisham appoints a new Interstate Stream Commission, the Gila diversion will likely die, and the federal funds would still be available for smaller water conservation projects. But at this point, the ISC and CAP are moving forward with a business plan.
“The Gila River is the heart of the Gila National Forest and the Gila Wilderness – America’s first wilderness – and any diversion project would threaten the upper Gila River and tributaries like the San Francisco,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Journal in a statement. “Local communities, farmers, and ranchers throughout the region depend on the greater Gila-San Francisco watershed to recharge their aquifers and groundwater supplies. And recreational tourism, which brings significant dollars to local businesses, relies on a healthy Gila River. It has been clear for years that this project is infeasible and I will remain vehemently opposed to any further diversion attempts.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called the Gila a “jewel” that deserves protection. He also said it would be irresponsible to “sacrifice” the river with a diversion.
Support ‘thirsty’ crops
The project is funded by the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968 and the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
That legislation allowed New Mexico to divert water from the Gila River and its tributaries in exchange for delivering an equivalent amount of water downstream to Arizona. It also gave the state access to up to $90 million in today’s dollars for water projects. In 2014, New Mexico chose to pursue a Gila River diversion with that money.
“The heart of this proposed action (the Gila diversion) is to use and preserve water for New Mexico that otherwise would be lost to Arizona, and has been for 50 years,” said CAP lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. “Our response to public officials who speak against this will suggest that they are doing something unprecedented by letting water go to a neighboring state.”
An economic analysis prepared by a federal consultant for Reclamation as part of the June draft environmental impact statement says the diverted water could support high-value, “thirsty” crops for farmers.
Those crops include lavender, hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes. Many farmers in the region currently grow lower-value crops like alfalfa and cotton.
Revenue from the new crops might offset the estimated high price for farmers to access the diverted water. But the latest project changes won’t be able to be divert and store as much water, so that original crop revenue estimate likely won’t be as high.
Four project sites on the Gila could divert as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.6 billion gallons) annually to four counties in southwest New Mexico: Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo. That’s enough water to supply about 57,000 Albuquerque homes in a year.
The Cliff-Gila diversion area borders the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first designated wilderness area. The American Rivers national conservation group named the Gila the nation’s most endangered river for 2019, citing diversion as the river’s biggest threat. In 2014, it was No. 4 on the list, and in 2008, the Gila landed at No. 7.
Previous Gila diversion attempts – Hooker Dam, Connor Dam and Mangus Creek Dam – were all pulled in part because of potential harm to the environment.
SWCA Environmental Consultants of Durango, Colorado, conducted surveys of plant, fish and wildlife in the diversion impact area for the environmental impact statement. The result: a diversion on the Gila “may influence water sources for wildlife and could affect recreational angling/fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing.”
Arthur Vollmer is the New Mexico Council chair for Trout Unlimited, one wildlife conservation group that supports legislation permanently protecting the Gila as a Wild and Scenic River. Vollmer said a diversion would make that designation less likely and would jeopardize the region’s wildlife and recreation economy.
“It’s such a unique area that’s so important to the state’s diverse fish and wildlife populations,” Vollmer said. “We need to keep that ecosystem intact. The watershed is already threatened by fire and drought. De-watering that area further with a diversion could severely impact things.”
The Gila is often called the last free-flowing river in New Mexico. Project opponents say a diversion would threaten the wild nature of the river.
“The notion that the Gila is free-flowing is not correct,” Runyan said. “There are already gravel berms on the river that push water into several ditches. Everyone is pretty much in agreement that we shouldn’t completely block the river. So the best option is to have an engineered diversion with an even lower profile than the gravel berms. It would only be about six feet high. But the opposition doesn’t like any alteration to the Gila.”
Fourteen native fish species live in the Gila River basin, including the endangered Gila trout. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher bird, loach minnow and the northern Mexican garter snake also call the river home.
Back and forth
The CAP entity was created in 2015 to oversee projects using Arizona Water Settlements Act money deposited annually in the New Mexico Unit Fund. Representatives from 15 local governments, soil and water conservation districts and irrigation associations in southwest New Mexico make up the entity. So far, planning for the Gila diversion has racked up $15 million.
“The hyperbole from the opposition is that the water will be outrageously expensive,” Runyan said. “It could be expensive initially, but farmers already have to pay $350 per acre-foot per year for water rights. The cost of a well-engineered diversion on average is less than what farmers pay to maintain the existing gravel berms.”
Howard Hutchinson is the CAP entity representative for the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District in Glenwood. He told the Journal he had invested “hours and hours” since 1973 to divert as much as 14,000 acre-feet of Gila water for New Mexico.
“Predecessors and mentors of mine have also invested many years and lots of money in this issue. It would be a tragedy for all that time to be wasted. That water has incredible value for the state,” Hutchinson said.
The CAP entity will most likely miss the year-end federal environmental impact statement deadline for the project and lose access to $55 million in AWSA construction funds. Domenici said the entity will work with the Department of the Interior to extend that deadline. But even if the extension isn’t granted, the state will still have up to $90 million for regional water projects, including the Gila diversion.
Gila Conservation Coalition executive director Allyson Siwik emailed the Journal that the decision by ISC and CAP to move forward with Gila plans “defied the governor’s commitment to end work on the Gila River diversion project.”
“The ISC and the NM CAP Entity have wasted 15 years and $15 million in a fruitless attempt to develop a viable project,” Siwik said. “Despite their inability to meet the December 2019 federal deadline for completion of the EIS, the groups continue to squander millions in federal funding on an infeasible project, when it could instead be spent on priority community water projects that can bring real water security to low-income communities in southwest New Mexico.”
At a May 7 CAP meeting, Hutchinson blamed ” political interference engendered by the environmental community” for the delays in the environmental impact statements.
“I don’t think that environmental groups are to blame for the delays, I know they are,” Hutchinson told the Journal. “Because of those groups (the then-Gov. Bill) Richardson administration placed a moratorium on any planning for diverting water. That lasted for eight years.”
Hutchinson said Reclamation and the National Environmental Policy Act contractors were at fault for EIS work that was “down to the 11th hour.”
“We spent all that money in those eight years chasing rabbits down rabbit holes and doing more than 200 studies,” Hutchinson said. “And we ended up with just a few non-diversion projects.”
“They’ve spent a lot of money for a lot of years,” Vollmer said. “I think that says something about the tenuous nature of this project that hasn’t been able to gather momentum. I’d much rather see the money go to conservation projects for better, more sustainable uses of water in the area.”
The Interstate Stream Commission will visit proposed Gila diversion sites in August.