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Pause in wrangling over Gila River essential

Recent legal wrangling over water development on the upper Gila River has resulted in a court order that provides an opportunity for a sorely needed pause.

There are several different options to consider and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission must decide by the end of this calendar year how to proceed with water development on the upper Gila River. The decision is supposed to be based upon sound technical study of the options, something for which ISC has been placed in charge.

Looking down the Gila River in the area of the Box Canyon in the Mogollon Mountains This is the area where water will be diverted on the last wild river in New Mexico. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal).

Looking down the Gila River in the area of the Box Canyon in the Mogollon Mountains This is the area where water will be diverted on the last wild river in New Mexico. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal).

Unfortunately, there are growing concerns regarding the accuracy of technical information being used by ISC.

Among others, these concerns include suspect results of studies complicated by data request denials and lack of independent review of study results.

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So a pause can provide an opportunity to make sure technical matters are resolved before making any decision on how to develop water on the upper Gila River.

The current debate generally centers on construction of a diversion project or funding water conservation actions. Under close examination, the controversial diversion alternative clearly poses the most significant environmental change.

The only way to make sure the basis for the decision is technically sound is to require external and objective review of the technical information that forms the basis. This is especially true since there are ISC reports with counter-intuitive results. For example, one report concludes, surprisingly, that reducing water flows result in more fish habitat and more fish.

The technical information and its interpretation need to be sound now because it’s not the end of the line for making a decision; there are federal environmental compliance processes waiting in the wings.

I should know. I retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January. I worked as a supervisory fish biologist for over 25 years. One of my primary duties was to evaluate federal water project impacts to fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. I worked on all major river basins in New Mexico and interacted extensively with ISC.

Over the years, my office satisfied numerous ISC requests for raw data, so I find it more than a little ironic that ISC is denying raw data requests for the upper Gila River, particularly from a former ISC director.

What I learned to expect from ISC was this: we conducted field studies, wrote reports, and obtained technical reviews and revised reports accordingly. In most cases, we also published our work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Regardless, ISC would disagree with our studies, demand all of our raw data and hand it over to a private contractor to “re-analyze.”

The alternative ISC-sponsored analysis and interpretation were not peer-reviewed, but the cycle of competing analyses was started and progress would grind to a halt. And, thus far, the same process has been implemented by ISC for the upper Gila River.

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Not only does ISC have the lead role for the upper Gila River, but also they are a dominating participant in the Middle Rio Grande’s Collaborative Program. It is relevant to consider how the Rio Grande efforts have gone to get an idea of what the future might hold on the Gila.

After a dozen or so years of the Collaborative Program spending a lot of money, the Rio Grande silvery minnow has gone from a fish with a widely fluctuating population size to a level so low that only growing and stocking hatchery-reared fish is keeping the species alive. Constant debate over the science, as led and perpetuated by ISC, facilitated the development of assumptions and the implementation of management actions that simply refused to recognize that riverine fish need a river.

So now on the Middle Rio Grande, we have a “functionally” extinct species, the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The future of the Gila River is at stake and we can’t afford to let inferior technical studies guide decisions. The current pause allowed by the court can be used to make the technical process right.

There is a lot at stake here. A Gila River diversion will dramatically increase the extinction risk for several species.

For the social and environmental costs, we cannot afford another poorly justified diversion, much less the additional risk of another dysfunctional collaborative program.

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