Peace on the Gila, too?

 

"Peace on the Klamath." Words like that, used on a recent cover, might compel one to believe that there are no insurmountable water problems (HCN, 6/23/08). And they give us hope for the Gila.

The situation in the Gila Basin of New Mexico is a bit different from that in the Klamath. Rather than arguing about too little water, stakeholders argue over what to do with more water. In the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), Congress apportioned New Mexico an additional 14,000 acre-feet per year of water from the Gila Basin, along with federal funding up to $128 million.

Funds up to $66 million can be used for planning and environmental mitigation. Funds between $66 million and $128 million are only available if New Mexico decides to develop some or all of the additional water. With all that water and money up for grabs, and with some who believe all the water should be left in the river and others who wish to utilize every drop, the situation has been ripe for disagreement.
The AWSA requires New Mexico to give notice to the secretary of Interior by 2014 if the state plans to develop any of the additional water. To plan for that decision, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) adopted a policy to use the best available science and information to both protect the ecology of the Gila Basin and to provide for present and future water needs. Because stakeholders in the region should develop an informed set of recommendations, we began a full and inclusive public involvement process.

That process has evolved into a Stakeholder Group open to any interested party. The Stakeholder Group will make recommendations on how, or if, the water and money should be used, based on sound scientific and economic studies.

As in many collaborative processes, distrust based on perceived conflicts between environmentalists, agriculturalists, municipal water users and other stakeholders is not easily overcome.

Simply arriving at a consensus is no assurance of success. Protecting the Gila will require a skillful scientific approach. Pumping to support an influx of new development or from existing agriculture wells can have long-term deleterious effects on arid-land rivers, especially during inevitable drought periods. The Gila, as well as the Verde and San Pedro rivers in Arizona, and even larger rivers such as the Rio Grande, the Snake and the Salmon, struggle with just these effects today.

Our desired outcome in the Gila is a completely open stakeholder process where everybody's wants and needs are on the table, and where solid scientific information on the area's water demands and the enduring effects of potential alternatives serve as the basis for informed choices by the citizens of the region.

Estevan Lopez
Director, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission