As an icon of wildness, freedom of flow, sport and recreation, the Gila River knows no superiors in the Southwest, albeit its modest current averages less than 100 cubic feet per second year-round, and agricultural diversions sometimes take even that for “beneficial use.” By the time the Gila, headed west from its source high in New Mexico’s Mogollon Range, is some 80 miles into Arizona, most of its story is told, its course a dry wash, its riparian zone scoured and stripped. It’s a great story, though, that first 200 miles. At the end of this year the river’s final denouement will be signed, sealed and delivered with no yellow ribbon to mark its demise; or, should reason and fiscal responsibility prevail, it could receive a lifetime reprieve.
People have been gunning for the Gila River’s water for a very long time. Arizona, with its senior water claims, succeeded in getting its share early on; agri-business irrigation diversions were constructed and are still in use, and a holding dam with a real reservoir behind it (Coolidge Dam/San Carlos Reservoir) left some in New Mexico thinking they got cheated at the trough.
New Mexico’s first major bid for more water from the Gila came in 1968 with Arizona’s grab of Colorado River water under the Central Arizona Project. Arizona knew it would need the votes from New Mexico’s most powerful politicians and bureaucrats to complete what turned out to be a roughly $4 billion project. New Mexico knew it, too, and held firm. When Arizona caved, it gave New Mexico a chance—not a guarantee—to develop 18,000 acre-feet per year of Gila River water with cheap loans to finance the deal.
Subsequent proposed water projects in the 1970s (Hooker Dam) and 1980s (Conner Dam and the Mangas Diversion Dam) fell prey to reality, lack of funding or an unwillingness to finance, and/or environmental problems. In the early 1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation went back to Washington and Phoenix. Locally, we thought the legacy of Aldo Leopold, who spoke as eloquently of the Gila Wilderness and its running waters as he did of the green fire in a dying wolf’s eyes, was now safe from an outdated industry called dam-building. But we were wrong.
In 2004, Arizona settled Native American water rights claims through the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA). In return for New Mexico’s vote of support, the act provided New Mexico with $66 million in nonreimbursable funds for any water development that meets a “water supply demand” in southwest New Mexico and up to $128 million should a New Mexico diversion “unit” be constructed.
Ten years later, and only months before New Mexico must notify the Secretary of Interior about its decision, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) has finally put this harmful and unnecessary project up for review with some rough engineering plans. ISC contractor Bohannon Huston came up with a recommended alternative costing $350 million, well above the AWSA subsidy, leaving New Mexico taxpayers and water users to cover more than $200 million in construction costs and millions more every year in operation and maintenance.
An independent engineer and former ISC director, Norman Gaume, testified before a New Mexico Senate Conservation Committee in February that the ISC’s Gila River diversion project is “fatally flawed” by a failure to account for the sediment that comes from high flows: “Will the river obliterate the dam before it buries it, or will it get buried first?” Gaume said, “Either way, it will not survive.” The pipeline, too, will get plugged up from sediment, Gaume said, and the final project cost could be two-to-three times the current estimate. Moreover, at least 6,000 acre-feet will be lost to evaporation from the proposed off-stream reservoirs. Combined with seepage losses, this project could lose more water than its annual yield.
Neither farm nor town nor industry nor government entity has shown a willingness to contract for the water, perhaps because they can’t claim a need: the Gila Basin has 4,000 acre-feet of water rights lying fallow, and the nearby Mimbres Basin, which supplies Silver City and Deming, has a supply sufficient to meet municipal and agricultural needs well into the future.
The fiscally responsible solution lies in the alternatives to diversion. Sustainable groundwater management, conservation, watershed restoration, water reuse proposed by stakeholders throughout southwest New Mexico can be easily funded with the AWSA subsidy and would yield more water (about 22,000 acre-feet per year) for less money (about $82 million per year).
In August, the ISC will make its preliminary decision: will it divert the Gila or pursue cost-effective conservation alternatives to meet future water needs? In November, its final decision will be heard. After many more days than we could ever recall, this “year of decision” has us counting the days on the fingers of our hands.
M.H. “Dutch” Salmon, chairman and founder of the Gila Conservation Coalition, is a writer, avid fisherman and outdoorsman, former New Mexico Game commissioner, and former New Mexico Interstate Stream commissioner.
The Gila Conservation Coalition
The Gila Conservation Coalition was organized in 1984 to protect the free flow of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and the wilderness characteristics of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas. The GCC is a partnership of three organizations—Gila Resources Information Project, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity—that promote conservation of the Upper Gila River Basin and surrounding lands. The GCC was instrumental in stopping the Hooker and Conner Dam proposals in the 1980s. The group also achieved protection of the East Fork of the Gila River from road building and partial closure of the wild San Francisco River to off-road vehicle use. www.Gilaconservation.org