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Gila in Demand

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    New Mexico is again stepping up efforts to take water from the Gila— the last large free-flowing river in the state— for use in Silver City and nearby communities.
    Proposals to divert water from the southwestern New Mexico river have been around for decades, typically centering on dams. They have been controversial and politically difficult.
    This time around, the debate is between government leaders who want to use the water for local residential and industrial use and conservationists who say the water is more valuable left in the river to support plants, wildlife and tourism.
    In the 1970s, planners suggested a "Hooker Dam" upstream from Cliff. In the '80s, the plan shifted to a "Conner Dam" near Red Rock. Federal water managers abandoned both ideas after a study in the late 1980s raised concerns over harm to endangered species.
    Now the idea is to avoid dams altogether, said project manager Craig Roepke of the Interstate Stream Commission.
    "It will not be an on-stream dam," he said.
    The $200 million to $300 million project would take water out of the river, via perforated pipes in the riverbed or another system, only during storms or other high flows when the river is running at three to six times its average levels, Roepke said.
    Still, there are doubters.
    "Those large peak flows are why the Gila River has such a productive and dynamic cottonwood-willow forest," said John Horning, executive director of Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians.
    The Gila ecosystem supports a diversity of birds and other wildlife, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened spikedace and loach minnow.
    "A dam is bad," Horning said. "Diverting during low flows is horrible. Diverting during high flows is the lesser of three evils, but it's something that still would be a major nail in the coffin of a river system."
    Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity is a member of a coalition of anglers, hunters, bird watchers and others who oppose the project.
    "There is no way to remove this quantity of water without dooming rare animals," he said. The Gila "is an absolute treasure for wildlife and it's also an economic treasure."
    The project likely would include more than one diversion on the Gila and possibly on the San Francisco River, a tributary. The water could be pumped directly out of the river or gathered through an infiltration gallery, a series of perforated pipes placed under the riverbed like a horizontal well.
    The water could be stored in a reservoir off the Gila, perhaps on Mangas Creek, which federal water experts identified in 1987 as the optimum storage site.
    Water from the Gila could also be pumped into a nearby aquifer for storage and later use, Roepke said.
    But the details have not been pinned down.
    "We don't want to get locked into something that might not be feasible down the line when we go to develop it," Roepke said.
    The state has the right to 18,000 acre-feet of water a year under the 1968 Central Arizona Project. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons or enough to supply 21/2 Albuquerque households for a year.
    New Mexico would take its share of water out of the Gila, and downstream Gila River water users would receive CAP water in exchange.
    So far, New Mexico has not used its CAP water. But an Arizona water rights settlement bill now before Congress could change that.
Preserving options
    Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have said they will support the bill only if it clears the way for the development of New Mexico's 18,000-acre-feet allotment.
    "These water rights belong to New Mexico, and any future development of this project should be done in a manner that allows the state to act on those rights," Domenici said. "I am hopeful we can end up with a bill that suits everyone's interests."
    The bill will resolve many Central Arizona Project issues for the last time, so it's important for New Mexico to preserve its options, Bingaman said in a Senate hearing.
    However, that doesn't guarantee the Gila project ever will be developed.
    The water isn't needed right now by New Mexico, and future needs, environmental impacts and state and local wishes will guide development down the road, according to a Bingaman spokeswoman.
    Officials in New Mexico and Arizona have gone through several rounds of negotiations to reach agreements on the water and money issues surrounding the project.
    The Interstate Stream Commission has proposed amendments to the bill that would do just that and provide $150 million in federal dollars for the project, Roepke said.
    The bill is scheduled for a markup hearing April 7 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Domenici chairs and on which Bingaman is the ranking Democrat.
    Meanwhile, Grant, Catron, Hidalgo and Luna county leaders are working to create a regional water authority that would obtain the water rights. That authority would also formulate a plan for developing and using the water.
    Henry Torres, chairman of the Grant County Commission, agreed with Bingaman that New Mexico must keep its options open.
    "At this point, the priority would be to have possession of the water and then create priorities for its use, depending on the circumstances at the time," he said.
    State officials want to get the project up and running as soon as possible, from four to 10 years from now, Roepke said.
    "The alternative to not developing this water in southwest New Mexico is it will flow downstream to Arizona for agricultural uses and irrigating salt cedar," Roepke said.
    Models show the Silver City-Bayard area will deplete its underground water aquifer within 20 years, Roepke said.
    The Gila water would go mainly for municipal and industrial uses because of the relatively high cost. But it could also be used to offset environmental problems such as river drying and to replenish declining aquifers, Roepke said.
Vineyard plan
    New Mexico water broker Bill Turner has thrown another proposal into the mix.
    He has applied to the state engineer for rights to the 18,000 acre-feet of water, which he wants to use to plant and irrigate 11,000 acres of vineyards on state trust land, creating as many as 1,200 local jobs in the process.
    "What I'm proposing is a win-win-win," said Turner, a trustee for the Canadian firm Lion's Gate Water.
    The state engineer denied Turner's application, saying the water isn't available, and Turner is in the process of appealing that decision.
    Turner also said there is plenty of water available in the region.
    "There is not likely to be a water shortage for any municipal and industrial use for 100 years," he said.
    Robinson agreed that water is not in short supply and said it's "myopic" to view Gila water that flows downstream and out of New Mexico as wasted.
    It plays a valuable role in maintaining the river ecosystem, which in turn supports wildlife and a growing recreation industry, including birding tourism, Robinson said.
    If more water really is needed in the region, Robinson said, there are creative options.
    For example, he suggested leasing the state's share of Gila water to downstream users in Arizona and using the money to pay for low-flow toilets and other conservation measures for southwest New Mexico residents. That would leave the Gila River intact as it flows through New Mexico.
    Peter Russell, the Nature Conservancy's field representative in southwestern New Mexico, said the current proposal remains vague.
    Decisions about exactly how and when to get the water from the river and how it will be stored and used have yet to be finalized, so the ecological impacts can't yet be measured.
    "It's just difficult to make an assessment," he said.