Keep the Gila Wild and Flowing Free in N.M.

From ABQJournal Online By Beth Bardwell Director of FreshwaterConservation - Audubon New Mexico bbardwell@audubon.org The Gila River still flows through New Mexico, not Arizona and we hope not Texas. It is the last major undammed river in our state, but unfortunately it might not stay that way.

Last week, I participated in the New Mexico First Town Hall on the Arizona Waters Settlement Act. For those of you who have never heard of this federal law, its general purpose is to provide tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to help meet future water demands in Southwestern New Mexico. For some, the priority is to construct a reservoir and double the current diversions off New Mexico’s last wild river as it runs through the picturesque Cliff-Gila River Valley.

The funding to construct a major diversion and possible pipeline on the Gila River will cost tens if not hundreds of millions over the current federal subsidy. John D’Antonio, our former state engineer, testified to Congress that construction alone could cost $92 million more than the current federal subsidy.

Aside from the question of which taxpayer’s wallet will be a little emptier, the bigger question for New Mexicans should be who will be able to afford the water once it is captured? One thing is clear, probably not the local farmers who live in the Gila River Basin.

The estimated cost of the Arizona Waters Settlement Act water alone is $122 per acre-foot per year. That price is anticipated to increase over time as other Colorado River Basin thirsty cities and industries vie for this same bucket of water.

And, the actual water is just part of the cost of this project. In addition to the water, New Mexico taxpayers or the end user will have to pay for project construction, annual operation and maintenance of a large water project, and the energy costs to pump water to its final destination if it is out of the basin.

Currently, farmers in the Gila River Basin pay an assessment to the irrigation district or association, in some cases as low as $5 per acre. A Gila River Basin farmer is unlikely to fork out a 25-fold increase in the cost of water and still make a profit.

So, if not farmers, who will end up with the Gila River Basin’s water? It would need to be somebody with very deep pockets who could afford to pump water uphill, over the Continental Divide, like a water-intensive industry, or a very large city like Albuquerque or El Paso.

The final destination appears to be of little concern, as long as we divert it out of its natural course. Why? Because for the last 100 years the consensus was that more economic benefit was derived from diverting water off-stream than leaving it in stream.

Welcome to the 21st century. What is lost in the arid west’s fight over water is the well-established fact that New Mexico derives an incredible economic boon from the free flow of water through the Gila River Basin. Tourism is the second largest industry in New Mexico. New Mexico’s fish and wildlife habitat contributes billions to our state economy through hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. Tourism and outdoor recreation play a substantial role in increasing employment and wage levels in rural communities. A river like the Gila, if managed for multiple benefits, is a major draw for people, businesses and retirees who are looking to live and work in a place with a high quality of life. Pristine scenery and wildlife help sustain property values and attract new investment.

Not only would New Mexico continue to derive the economic benefits from a free-flowing river, it would still have access to $66 million in federal funds over the next 10 years to meet identified, local water needs in the southwestern four-county area. Over a dozen projects were identified by local stakeholders at the New Mexico First Town Hall for increasing water supply through regionalization, water reuse and conservation, irrigation efficiencies and watershed restoration.

The path seems clear. Let’s hope the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which votes next week on which projects to advance, isn’t looking through the rearview mirror.

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And from the NM Wilderness Alliance:
MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD TODAY
ISC to Make Decisions on Projects to be Considered under the Arizona Water Settlements Act
On February 29, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) will decide on the handful of projects that will move forward for final consideration under the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), leading up to the December 2014 deadline for notifying the Department of the Interior whether or not New Mexico will develop Gila River water. As part of this process, the ISC released the Tier 2 evaluation panel rankings of stakeholder proposals submitted under the Arizona Water Settlements Act planning process. Although the Gila Conservation Coalition's municipal conservation proposal scores at the top of the list, three of the top four ranked proposals are large scale diversion, dam and pipeline projects that would withdraw 14,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Gila, impound it in an off-stream reservoir, and pipe it to Deming or other population centers or use it for agricultural use. The Gila River is vital to our economy in southwest New Mexico. It is the last free-flowing, main-stem river in the state and one of the few remaining in the Southwest. Rich in natural and cultural history, the Gila contributes significant economic benefits to our counties through ecosystem services, enhanced property values, aesthetics, recreation and tourism, and scientific and educational opportunities. The Gila supports a naturally reproducing sport fishery and is a birding hotspot of the Southwest. A costly, unnecessary dam and pipeline would forever change the Gila River's unique ecology, compromising the economic, environmental and recreational benefits the Gila provides, and put a financial burden on local water users for decades to come.

  • There has been no demonstrated need for Gila River water. Studies show that the regional aquifer contains enough water to supply Silver City for hundreds of years. Deming's 2009 water plan states that the community has already acquired enough water rights to meet future demand over the 40-year planning period. Moreover, as much as 25,000 acre-feet of mining water rights lay fallow in the Gila and Mimbres basins and could provide a cushion for municipal and industrial use as mining activity winds down over the next 30 years…
  • We can't afford it. The construction cost for the Deming Diversion Project, #3 on the evaluation panel's ranking list, will cost $325 million-more than double the promised $128 million federal subsidy. The additional cost would be shouldered by water users and local governments, burdening our local communities with debt and unnecessarily high water rates.
  • The project won't benefit the local area. The state is scrambling to meet obligations to big cities in New Mexico and Texas. It's almost certain that this water will leave the local area and get piped to the Rio Grande and on to Texas, especially given that this water is too expensive for water users in southwest New Mexico.

The responsible choice provides real solutions for southwest New Mexico's long-term water needs at a fraction of the cost. There is $66 million available to fund common-sense, cost-effective water projects. These proposals received strong support at last week's NM First Town Hall meeting at which stakeholders from throughout southwest New Mexico provided input on the twenty projects submitted for Tier 2 evaluation.

  • Grant County Regional Water Supply meets a real water need now by providing a long-term, sustainable water supply to 26,000 people including Mining District communities with an extremely urgent need, such as Hurley that has no water rights.
  • Water Reuse Projects in Bayard and Deming Given that Bayard will no longer be able to discharge treated effluent from its wastewater treatment plant into one of the Chino mine tailings ponds, this project is a priority for putting the treated effluent to beneficial use through watering of ballparks and a new cemetery, saving the town 528 acre-feet of water per year. Deming's reuse project will water parks and recreational facilities and initially save 328 acre-feet of water per year.
  • Agricultural Conservation, such as conversion to drip irrigation and irrigation ditch and diversion improvements, have the potential to significantly improve irrigation efficiency and reduce water demand from the agricultural sector, the largest water user in the four-county area.
  • Municipal Conservation has the potential to save 4,200 acre-feet of water annually throughout southwest New Mexico. Water conservation measures reduce the demand for water in a cost-effective manner and therefore reduce the need to develop costly new water supplies.

IT'S UP TO YOU: Support an affordable long-term water supply that benefits local economies by contacting the Interstate Stream Commissioners BY TODAY.

  • Tell the ISC that you support responsible, cost-effective non-diversion alternatives that secure our water future at low cost and keep the Gila River flowing, such as the Grant County Regional Water Supply project, Bayard and Deming reuse projects, and municipal and agricultural conservation. These projects should be evaluated during the 2012 - 2013 assessment phase of the AWSA planning process.
  • As a follow-up to the positive NM First Town Hall, we strongly request full public participation in review of work plans during the 2012 - 2013 assessment phase of the planning process.

Interstate Stream Commission Members - please bcc: info@gilaconservation.org so we can keep track of emails to the commissioners. Thanks! Jim Dunlap, ISC Chairman waterjim1@live.com; 505-598-5845 Estevan Lopez, ISC Director estevan.lopez@state.nm.us; 505-827-6103 Scott Verhines, State Engineer scott.verhines@state.nm.us; 505-827-6091 Patricio Garcia PAGarcia@rio-arriba.org; 505-753-4508 Blane Sanchez indnh2o@aol.com; 505-869-2068 Mark S. Sanchez msanchez@abcwua.org; 505-768-2504 Julia Davis Safford csranch@bacavalley.com; 575-376-2827 Buford Harris bufordharris@yahoo.com; 575-644-8614 James Wilcox jrwilcox@pvtnetwords.net; 575-887-2871 x 421 Phelps Anderson wpasve@rt66.com; 575-625-9152 Randal Crowder rscrowder@suddenlink.net; 575-763-3901