Commission to decide on Gila River’s fate

Approval for a diversion expected Monday despite broad criticism.


A New Mexico committee is scheduled to vote on Monday morning on a contentious water diversion project that has angered many conservationists for a lack of transparency and for the potential to ruin one of the last wild stretches of the Gila River.

On Thursday, State District Judge Francis Mathew dissolved a restraining order that had prevented the Interstate Stream Commission from deciding on the water diversion, which means the commission can now make a decision under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act.

The law granted New Mexico $90 million in federal funding to improve the water supply for the dry, southwestern corner of the state. The act also gave New Mexico the right to develop an additional 14,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River, which would trigger an additional $46 million in federal subsidies for that purpose. With the restraining order dissolved, the commission can now make a final decision about whether it will build a diversion and take the federal bonus.

Monday morning’s deliberation is coming despite growing criticism of the stream commission and its decision-making process. In addition to general anger over the potential changes to the Gila that might result from a diversion and the enormous expense of building one, critics are upset over the lack of transparency in the commission’s meetings. Now, with the December deadline looming, opponents fear the commission is intent on green-lighting the diversion in a bid for federal dollars.

The Gila River winds its way through southwest New Mexico. A Commission is set to vote on whether to build a diversion on one of the few remaining wild sections of the river.
Sarah Tory

“It’s pretty clear they have their mind made up,” said Todd Schulke, a staff member at the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the diversion. “They may throw bones at other projects, but they’re going after the water.”

The restraining order had come from a lawsuit filed by a former director of the commission, Norman Gaume. He says the commission has made Water Settlement funding and other policy decisions outside the public eye, which is not legal under New Mexico’s Open Meeting Act.

“The Open Meeting Act says citizens should be able to observe their deliberations,” Gaume told me when we met two weeks ago to discuss his lawsuit. “But there’s been no deliberations to observe.”

Anthony Gutierrez, the chairman of the commission’s Gila River subcommittee, denies those charges. The subcommittee makes recommendations that the commission then votes on, he said in an interview, calling those procedures “routine.” Gutierrez, who was born and raised in Grant County, one of the four counties covered by the Arizona Water Act Settlement, supports a diversion. He sees securing the right to more water as a crucial preventative measure for this drought prone region. “Look at Tucson and Phoenix right now,” he said. “Those cities are screwed if they don’t find water somewhere.”

But that line of thinking doesn’t sit well with Gaume, who has worked on numerous water projects over his 40-year career as a state water engineer. He says the Gila River is not going to provide the kind of water the commission is hoping for.

“The biggest thing for me was the yield,” Gaume said. “I would have thought they would have investigated this, since it’s the basis for any water project. Even if you assume best case scenario, it barely works.”

The legal terms of the Arizona Water Settlements Act place significant restrictions on the amount of water New Mexico could legally divert. Gaume says the commission has not publicly disclosed its method for calculating the amount of water a diversion would make available.

However, the commission inadvertently sent him part of its inspection as part of a public records request, which allowed him to make his own calculations and analysis, he said. Based on his models, which analyzed river flows between 1937 and 2013, he concluded that little or no water would be available for a diversion in almost half those years. In addition, the commission is not considering the geology of the canyons it hopes to use as water storage, he said.

The structure recommended for a diversion by the commission’s engineering consultants is a low-profile concrete weir, a barrier fitted with a screen, which would draw water into pipes leading to massive storage sites in the Gila’s side canyons. But those side canyons are a problem, Gaume said.

“It’s seepage-prone volcanic conglomerate,” Gaume said, noting that a report by the commission’s own consultants had similar concerns. The expected seepage losses, when combined with the evaporation losses at the storage sites, could “equal or exceed the planned minimum annual diversion yield of 10,000 acre feet, which would result in no available usable water from the project,” the commission report states. In other words, the canyons won’t hold that much water, and Gaume fears the commission is making decisions based on false assumptions.

Bohannan Huston, the engineering consultants hired by the commission, admitted this at their presentation during the commission’s Nov. 10 meeting. Their solution is to drape the canyons in a plastic liner, a plan Gaume called “magical thinking, not engineering.”  

For Gutierrez at the Gila subcommittee, however, these questions miss the point. “The important thing is for New Mexico to secure the water because it’s valuable,” he said.  “We can figure out how to get it later on.” 

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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