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Know the West

With Gila River deadline looming, New Mexico debates its water options


In the Colorado River drainage basin, where states and cities routinely wrestle over limited water, and where a 14-year drought may portend long-term scarcity, new water sources are rare and precious. Thanks to a decade-old settlement, New Mexico has access to just such a resource. But, after years of debate, and with just months before a federal deadline, state officials still haven’t decided whether to use the water or let it remain in the Gila River.

Farmers and ranchers say diverting the Gila would ensure long-term supply, but conservationists fear disrupting riparian ecology. Photo by Flickr user Chris M. Morris.

The settlement in question is the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a 2004 agreement that gave New Mexico annual rights to 14,000 acre-feet of water (over 4.5 billion gallons) from the Gila, a 649-mile-long tributary of the Colorado, and the Gila’s own tributary, the San Francisco. Taking the water would mean diverting the Gila – the state’s last free-flowing river – through dams, channels and pipelines for storage. Farmers, ranchers and municipalities say the project would protect against flooding and ensure long-term supply. “I really think this is a one-time opportunity to secure water for our kids and grandkids,” rancher David Ogilvie told the Albuquerque Journal last month.

Conservation groups and sportsmen, however, fear that diversions would do ecological harm without solving the state’s long-term water problems. Although the environmental impacts of diversion on the Gila haven’t yet been fully assessed, Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, says that preliminary analyses suggest that it would substantially alter natural flow. “These flows wet the floodplains, recharge groundwater and trigger spawning in native fish,” Siwik says. “This is one of the last intact riparian areas we have.”

The state only has until the end of 2014 to decide how to proceed. Complicating the situation is that, under the terms of the settlement, the federal government offered New Mexico $128 million to develop its water resources; around half of that funding can only be spent on diversion. Yet even if the state spends all the federal money on diversion, it won’t be enough to cover costs: according to an analysis by engineering firm Bohannan Huston, the recommended diversion project would come in at $348 million. That means the state could end up on the hook for around $200 million.

What’s more, the settlement requires that New Mexico pay to deliver as much water as it diverts to Arizona’s downstream Gila River Indian community. At current federal water rates (which, unsurprisingly, are on the rise), that would add over $2 million to the project’s price-tag each year.

Those costs have many New Mexicans wondering if there’s a better way of dealing with chronic water shortage. A 2013 poll suggests that most state residents oppose diversion, and nearly 70 percent view it merely as a band-aid.

State senator Peter Wirth thinks there might be a more enduring solution. Last week, Wirth filed Senate Bill 89, which would require the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission – the agency that will make the final call on how to manage the settlement – to spend $82 million of federal money on conservation projects like watershed restoration, effluent reuse and infrastructural improvements. Together, those measures could supply 22,000 acre-feet – 8,000 more than diversion. “These are low-hanging fruit that every part of the state, municipalities, and agriculture should be looking at,” Wirth told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “When I look at the costs and benefits, doing the non-diversion projects first absolutely makes sense.”

Even if SB89 does survive the senate, however, the Interstate Stream Commission may still have the ultimate say over the Gila’s fate. And while the ISC’s commissioner, Estevan Lopez, insists that the agency isn’t dogmatically pro-diversion, it isn’t ready to abandon the idea just yet. “In my mind, we are trying to keep the diversion on the table as an option,” Lopez told the New Mexican.

Although Wirth’s bill, and the looming deadline, have thrust the Gila into the spotlight, the dispute has been simmering steadily for the last nine years. In a 2008 letter to High Country News, Lopez expressed his desire for an open process to resolve the water debate, and bemoaned “distrust based on perceived conflicts between environmentalists, agriculturalists, municipal water users and other stakeholders.” Six years later, although 200 public meetings have managed to whittle down the ISC’s options, that distrust seems no closer to dissipating.

If the ISC elects to pursue diversion, it will be in keeping with water management precedent. Diversions are a fact of life in the Southwest – from Las Vegas, which diverts over 400,000 acre-feet annually, to Colorado’s Front Range, whose straw slurps from the state’s Western Slope. More ambitious proposals are on the table. A $2 billion pipeline in Utah, for instance, that would transfer water 139 miles westward from Lake Powell, is slated to begin construction in 2015. In recent years, High Country News writers have reported on speculative plans to try everything from redirecting water from the Mississippi floodplains to importing it via tankers and floating icebergs.

Yet other developments suggest that the tide is turning against pricey, high-consuming projects. The Flaming Gorge Pipeline, a proposed 500-mile diversion from Wyoming’s Green River to the Front Range, has failed to gain support from water agencies, and in December, a judge blocked a $6.5 billion plan to pipe groundwater from rural Nevada to Las Vegas. Increasingly, states and municipalities are seeking to make up shortfalls via conservation, rather than sticking in another straw. That logic has infiltrated the highest levels of policy: This fall, Matt Jenkins reported on a landmark Colorado River deal struck by American water agencies and the Mexican government to improve efficiency, allocate supply more fairly and leave enough in the river for delta ecosystems.

As southwestern communities grapple with their own water predicaments, the final Gila plan, expected in November, may well prove influential. “Are we moving forward with innovative, sustainable techniques to meet our long-term water needs, or are we going to stay stuck in the past?” asks Siwik. “People are looking to New Mexico on this question.”

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.