On New Mexico’s Gila River, a contentious diversion gets the go-ahead

Questions remain of how much water it will yield and whether local farmers can afford to buy it.


Late last year, New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission voted to proceed with planning for a large diversion and storage project on the upper section of the Gila River, something that will, depending on whom you ask, either save a drought-prone region or destroy one of the Southwest’s few remaining wild rivers.

For a decade, people have been fighting over how to spend money from the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which gave New Mexico $66 million in federal funding to help improve the water supply in the state’s southwestern corner. The commission considered 15 different proposals, some conservation-oriented and others with considerably larger ambitions. Ultimately, it decided in favor of a large-scale proposal to develop 14,000 acre-feet of water from the last remaining stretch of the wild Gila, garnering an extra $34 million in federal funds in the process.

Get as much water as you can, from wherever you can, and worry about the consequences later.

As part of their role, the commission also approved funding for a few conservation projects, but the big-ticket item was the diversion, with the 4.5 billion gallons of water per year that proponents hope it could supply. And though it’s not that much compared to, say, the 110,000 acre-feet diverted from the San Juan River for northern New Mexico’s use, its impact could be tremendous: The Gila is not a big river. In its upper reaches, it tumbles through box canyons high in the Gila Wilderness, Aldo Leopold’s old stomping grounds, before it paints a ribbon of green across the arid Cliff-Gila Valley.

The diversion matters because the Gila’s ecosystem is so intimately shaped by its floods, from light trickles to heavy deluges. They all play critical roles along the river, spreading nutrients across the floodplain and recharging groundwater reserves. They water cottonwoods for the endangered southern willow flycatcher and provide habitat for the threatened Gila trout, as well as for the endangered loach minnow and spikedace. Diverting water would permanently alter the Gila’s flows, diminishing the seasonal floods along with the ecosystem that has evolved to rely on them.

So the commission’s decision to build the diversion angered many environmentalists, who see it as the product of an outmoded way of thinking. “There are folks saying you have to grab this water,” said Adrian Oglesby, director of the University of New Mexico’s Utton Transboundary Resources Center and a former attorney for the commission, “because if you don’t grab it now, you’re never going to get it. No matter the cost, and even if we don’t know what we’re building yet.”

The decision raises questions around one of the West’s oldest and most intractable issues, and whether new conservation ideas might have an impact on water management. The answer, at least here, appears to be no. Given the Southwest’s pervasive drought, old instincts rise to the surface: Get as much water as you can, from wherever you can, and worry about the consequences later.


The Middle Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico winds west toward Arizona.
Joe Burgess/Federal Highway Administration

Anthony Gutierrez, the chairman of the commission’s Gila River subcommittee, is a leading diversion proponent. During deliberations late last year, he said the fear of losing the water trumped all other concerns.

“Just look at Phoenix and Tucson,” he said. “Those cities are screwed if they don’t find water somewhere.” For him, approving the diversion was like buying drought insurance for New Mexico. The most important thing was for the state to secure the right to develop the water, even if all the details aren’t fully worked out. “We can figure out how to get it later on.”

But major questions remain: How much water would a diversion actually yield, for example, and would anyone here be able to afford it? According to Norm Gaume, who served as director of the Interstate Stream Commission from 1997 to 2002 and has since become its loudest critic, the water would cost $8,000 per acre-foot. That means that a typical household in Deming would see its water bill rise from about $14 per month to more than $170. Meanwhile, environmental groups and scientists worry about the impacts on the river’s fragile ecosystem. “The project will provide little to no water and will harm the wildlife of the Gila River,” Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, said.

The commission argues that a diversion will actually improve the river’s ecology, by allowing the release of water from storage into the river during dry spells. Plus, supporters say, it will provide more water for drought-stressed farmers. Craig Roepke, the commission’s deputy director and an avid river runner, says critics are missing the big picture. “If I had nothing else to consider, personally, other than nature, I probably wouldn’t divert any water from the Gila,” he said. “But you have to consider other interests as well.”

Gaume remains unimpressed by the commission’s arguments. In his mid-60s, Gaume has watery blue eyes, a white goatee and the exasperated air of a man who has run out of patience. “Even if you assume best-case scenario, it barely works,” he said. “Don’t people deserve to know this?”

Before he left the commission, Gaume had dismissed similar diversion proposals as unrealistic. Three previous attempts to build a dam on the Gila had failed: The costs, both financial and environmental, far outweighed any benefits. Diverting water from the river and storing it in side canyons would be no different, Gaume said. “It’s common sense that there’s no place to store it, and it’s going to be super-expensive, even without the calculation of yield.”

The commission’s preferred plan would start with an intake structure at the top of the upper Gila Box Canyon less than a mile from the wilderness boundary. Water would be diverted through a screen-like infiltration device into a tunnel, then into a series of pipelines that would convey the water to four reservoir sites in side canyons. But Gaume says those canyons are made of a kind of rock, known as Gila conglomerate, that is very prone to seepage — and they might not hold any water.

The commission has not publicly disclosed the amount of water a diversion would yield, but at a May meeting, Roepke acknowledged that getting the full 14,000 acre-feet of water entirely off the Gila would not be possible without causing “severe environmental problems.” If New Mexico is going to enjoy the full allotment, he said, another water development project in another part of the Gila Basin will likely be needed.

An earlier report by the commission’s own consultants echoed concerns that the diversion would not yield enough water to make the project worthwhile. The expected seepage and evaporation losses “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 report said. “In our opinion, several project components were not adequately addressed in the (preliminary engineering report), and it is currently unknown if these components represent fatal flaws.”

The commission’s consultants have suggested coping with the seepage by draping the canyons in a layer of clay and a plastic liner. But, as Gaume noted, there’s no clay in the area. It would have to be trucked in — 26 million cubic feet of it, the equivalent of 100,000 dump-truck loads — at enormous cost.

The whole process has left many New Mexicans wondering what the commission was thinking when it approved a project that appears to be so flawed. “It’s like religion,” Gaume said. “People aren’t rational about water development.”

Former Interstate Stream Commission director Norm Gaume speaks out against proposals that call for the diversion of a portion of the Gila River during a rally outside a commission meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last November.
Susan Montoya Bryan/ AP Photo

Last April, the commission allowed Gaume to present his concerns at a public meeting in Tucumcari, a remote town in eastern New Mexico. Few people attended and no media were present. Afterwards, no details of Gaume’s criticisms appeared in the minutes — including his questions about the actual cost of the project and a realistic estimate of the amount of water it would gain for the state.

Building and operating the kind of project the commission has in mind would cost somewhere around $1 billion, Gaume and other experts estimate, far more than federal funding would cover. The commission proposed issuing bonds to pay for it, but critics say that the current financing plan relies on unrealistically low cost projections.

Now, the commission has until the end of this year to draft a more concrete plan for a diversion so the Bureau of Reclamation will sign off on the project. If the commission succeeds, the next step will be the federal environmental review process, which could last another four years.

Altogether, the commission has spent $5 million studying the diversion proposals and anticipates spending millions more, in the hopes of bolstering what critics believe was a predetermined conclusion: that developing more water from the Gila is not only possible, but advisable. The problems are manageable, supporters say, and besides, any technical and environmental concerns are missing the point. In a drying region, the chance to grab new water — no matter what the cost — is too precious to pass up.

“Who knows what it’s going to be like in 50 or 100 years?” Gutierrez said. “I think that we want to try to eliminate that risk.”

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