With a lagging economy and a warming climate, New Mexico might be getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dim plans to draw water from the Gila River. The state has had a decade to decide: Build diversions, canals and reservoirs to take 14,000 acre feet each year of the river’s waters; or, secure water for farmers, businesses and homes in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of New Mexico through efficiency and conservation.
Now, with a rush of last-minute studies and contradictory results, 10 men are heading toward a vote that could change one of the West’s last wild stretches of river.
Later this month, the appointed members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission are scheduled to make that decision—sealing the fate of the river and taxpayers alike. In addition to working with neighboring states on water sharing, the commission’s role is to “investigate, protect, conserve, and develop New Mexico’s waters.”
As water supplies dry up and demand increases across the western United States, it seems natural that New Mexico would jump at the chance to nail down new water supplies. Already, officials have spent millions of federal dollars on studies, staffers and meetings. But with the clock ticking toward an irreversible decision, important questions remain. Neither project proponents nor the state know how much the three proposed diversion projects will actually cost or how they’ll be funded.
Uncertainty in the climate, as well as within the engineering plans, has people scratching their heads over how much water the Gila could even yield. And no one is promising they’ll actually buy the water once it’s for sale.
The air is humid inside the gymnasium at the Cliff School, just off Highway 180 between Glenwood and Silver City. About 100 people sit on bleachers on this late July evening, while staff from the commission and the US Bureau of Reclamation fiddle with a fold-up screen and projector.
A handful of locals stand close to the gymnasium door, but the bulk of the hoary-headed crowd seems to have come to Cliff from Silver City, a town of 10,000 that’s about 30 minutes away.
For about an hour, people wearing “Save the Gila” T-shirts sit mostly rapt while the state’s water resource specialists wonk out over flow and water-use alternatives on the hydrologic conditions (how surface water and groundwater interact with one another); macroinvertebrate responses to diversions (how many bugs fish will find to eat if there’s less water in the river); and the (dubious) results of conservation projects the commission funded in Deming and Silver City.
Then the commission employees relinquish their laser pointer to the feds.
Employees from the US Bureau of Reclamation have looked at the three diversion proposals and tried to figure out how they might work and what they might cost.
Known as the agency that has built dams for generations of farmers in 17 states, the bureau brought you the Hoover Dam, Elephant Butte Reservoir and everything in between. Its mission has expanded so that it now manages, develops and protects water—“in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.”
At the start of his talk, Jeff Riley, chief of Reclamation’s Engineering Division in Phoenix, is clear: “The Bureau of Reclamation is not trying to sway people one way or the other,” he says, “but is here to provide analysis.”
To the casual observer, he’s talking about three ways to dam the river, though planners never use that word. Everyone talks about “diversions” and each of the three has a cumbersome name: The Gila Basin Irrigation Commission Division and Storage Project, the Southwest New Mexico Regional Water Supply Plan (also called the Deming Surface Water Division), and the Hidalgo County Off-Stream Project.
The Gila Basin Irrigation Commission project would include two diversion structures on the river upstream of Cliff, and water would be stored underground and in 10 small farm ponds. Reclamation estimates it would cost almost $42 million to build and then $585,000 a year to operate and maintain.
The second project would divert water from the Gila and underground, store it in off-stream reservoirs in Mogollon and Mangas creeks and then pipe it 73 miles, over the Continental Divide, to Deming. Riley says the city doesn’t mention how it would use that water and adds that there is a “massive” lack of information on the geology of the area.
That project would cost more than $500 million to build and almost $9 million each year to operate and maintain.
Lastly, the Hidalgo County project would include diversion, canals and storage in reservoirs off the main stem of the Gila. That project comes in at almost $235 million to build and more than $1.5 million to operate and maintain each year.
The audience keeps interrupting Riley’s talk with questions: Who owns the land right there? What changes would occur on the landscape? Why doesn’t the Deming estimate include the electricity to pump the water? What about pathogens that could be spread in the reservoirs or ponds? Will the reservoirs be open for recreation?
He can’t answer any of these questions. They are out of the scope of the report, says Riley. Reclamation’s only role is to analyze information it has from New Mexico.
An older gentleman, Dutch Salmon, pipes up from the audience. “Part of why Connor suffered and died was because of poor cost benefit analysis,” he says, referring to one of the two dams Reclamation had proposed for the Gila decades ago. “So how could any of these be justified?”
Riley shrugs and Reclamation’s natural resource economist, Steven Piper, stands from the base of the bleachers. “Yes, there is a negative net benefit,” he says of the diversion projects. Someone else asks if that’s normal for dam projects. “That depends,” he says, noting that he can only “tap dance around” the answer.
The questions keep coming, including another one for the economist: Who can pay for the projects?
The report includes only one page on financial feasibility: “We weren’t asked to look at the financial side,” Piper says. Without knowing how the water will be used, who will buy it and the exact cost of the projects, it’s hard to say who would actually fund their construction and maintenance. If the state ends up footing the bill, the money would likely come from the severance tax funds that pay for most of the state’s capital projects.
The last person to take the microphone is a young, red-headed woman. If temperatures continue to rise and snowpack keeps declining, she asks, will New Mexico get all its water? Talk turns toward climate change and if it’s really possible to get 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila.
But the gathering has already gone 20 minutes over its allotted time, and Anderson closes the meeting.
Leaving the gymnasium, Salmon complains that the Interstate Stream Commission presentations glossed over problems with diversion and storage. A former commissioner himself, almost 30 years ago, he grabbed his dog and black-and-white cat, set his canoe in the river and traveled some 200 miles downstream toward Arizona. “I’ve been stuck defending the Gila ever since,” he says.
Today, he’s slowed down by Parkinson’s, but he still attends the meetings and tries to fly fish when he can. Pointing himself out the door and into the cloudy night—rain is on the way—he says, “But don’t worry. We’ll get ‘em.”
If it seems miraculous that the state is considering a harness for one of the Southwest’s last natural stretches of river—in an area where the population is expected to decline—it helps to remember that Western water battles are epic.
More than 60 years ago, New Mexico was drawn into a legal fight between California and Arizona over the Colorado River. After a Supreme Court decision and an act of Congress, eventually, New Mexico was promised more Colorado River water, but only if someone in Arizona were willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or its tributary the San Francisco River.
This isn’t water in rivers and pipes. Rather, it’s water on spreadsheets and legal documents. Even after decades, New Mexico couldn’t find a willing trader.
Then in 2004, Congress allowed New Mexico to trade with Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community. With the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Congress gave New Mexico a deal: The state could meet water demands in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron counties through efficiency and conservation and receive $66 million in federal funding over ten years. And, New Mexico could also divert and pump the Gila’s waters and receive another $34 million and possibly another $28 million.
Under the agreement, any water diverted from the Gila would have an extra fee tacked onto it. That exchange fee—currently about $146 per acre-foot—is set by the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile long system of aquaducts, tunnels and pipelines that moves water from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to southern Arizona.
Since 2012, the federal government has already put $27 million into what’s called the New Mexico Unit Fund, which is managed by the commission. That money has gone toward salaries, studies related to the river’s hydrology and ecology, conservation projects, public meetings and engineering studies of the three diversion proposals, and isn’t available for capital costs.
Now, the Interstate Stream Commission has just months left to tell the federal government if New Mexico will build a diversion project or a “New Mexico Unit” of the Central Arizona Project.
Doing so would activate those extra federal funds—$34 million or maybe $62 million. But with projects ranging in cost up to $500 million, the state would need to pay the difference.
Norman Gaume, commission director, is baffled by the current process, which began after he had retired in 2002. Crucial questions remain unanswered on the Gila, he says, including how realistic diversion plans actually are, given local geology and what he calls “flawed” engineering designs.
Worse yet, Gaume says that some of the commission’s studies appear to “mask the impacts rather than evaluate them fairly.”
In January, the state released a preliminary engineering report for a $348 million diversion project that would remove water from the Gila and store it in nearby arroyos. At the time, Gaume and others criticized the Bohannan Huston report for having too many engineering problems.
Then at the end of May, a second firm called RJH Consultants Inc. sent a memo to commission staff with the results of its independent review of the report. It had found “significant technical challenges or potential fatal flaws,” including geological issues with the dam and reservoir locations. It questioned the amount of water that could realistically be diverted from the river, as opposed to the amount New Mexico would legally be allowed to take. The memo also noted that many of the cost estimates were understated or not identified.
During the public meeting in Cliff, after one of the Interstate Stream Commission’s water resource specialists briefed the audience on the RJH memo, people grumbled about the timing of all this work. The commission has issued another work order—this time for $700,000—to Bohannan Huston.
The due date for its revised report is mid-September. A question comes from the audience: What’s the point of that if the commission is making its decision in August?
From his spot in the bleachers, the commission’s deputy director, Craig Roepke, tries to quell concerns about the scheduling of reports and decisions: “The commission sets its own schedule,” he says. “They don’t have to pick any of these.”
Despite Roepke’s reassurances to the feisty audience, the commission must decide by December 31—and it’s scheduled to vote at an August 26 meeting in Albuquerque.
Originally, the state’s decision-making process was open only to federal, state and local agencies. Then in 2007, Gov. Bill Richardson temporarily halted things by vetoing state funding for Gila Basin water development. Stakeholder groups were invited into the process, and according to Allyson Siwik, director of the nonprofit Gila Resources Information Project, they felt their voices were being heard.
But in 2011, the local process was disbanded. Stakeholders stopped meeting regularly and, says Siwik, commission staff tightly controlled the flow of information, even to the commission.
Today the all-male commission includes a mix of old and new faces. But almost all have a background in agriculture. One of the new commissioners is Cliff’s Topper Thorpe, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in March 2012. According to the governor’s press release, Thorpe has been a leader in water planning in the southwestern part of the state, serving as co-chairman of the Southwest New Mexico Water Planning Stakeholders Group and as chair of the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission. If that name is familiar, it’s because the basin commission proposed one of the diversion projects.
The state’s top two water guys, both engineers, also sit on the commission. State Engineer Scott Verhines and Estevan López, the staff director, are appointed to those jobs by the governor.
Verhines has experience with rural water projects. Before Gov. Martinez appointed him in 2011, he led the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, which oversees a project to pipe water from Ute Lake near Logan to towns like Clovis and Portales. Originally, the project was estimated to cost $200 million. Construction on that project—which is now estimated to cost more than $500 million—began in 2013.
First appointed as director of the commission by Gov. Richardson, López stayed in the post under Martinez. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama nominated him to serve as commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, but Congress has yet to confirm his nomination.
"We don’t have a thousand miles of river like this"
If López is still a state worker at the end of the month, he says he’ll recommend that the Interstate Stream Commission hold off on a vote until more studies have been completed. “I’m inclined to say to take more time to wait for more studies before issuing a preliminary decision,” he tells SFR.
Despite criticism leveled at the commission, López says its process has been transparent—and it has not only kept the public informed, it has allowed citizens and activists the chance to propose projects and recommend studies. “I know people don’t like what they’re seeing in terms of study results,” he says. He thinks some would have preferred the commission just scratch diversion off the board altogether. “That doesn’t make sense for us to do, for diversion or any other proposal,” he says. All of the proposals, including diversion, he says, need to be considered.
He also says the decision is nuanced: Right now, the commission has 15 projects to choose from, three of which are diversion projects. It doesn’t, he says, have to choose only one project to the exclusion of others. Whichever ones are chosen will require a deeper look. The National Environmental Policy Act, for example, requires an agency to consider alternatives and also study how everything from archaeological sites to endangered species might be affected.
“It’s not like at the end of the year, everything is set in stone,” he says. “There is still room for things to change, to evaluate the process.”
To receive those additional millions of dollars, however, the commission must let the federal government know by the end of the year if it plans to build a “New Mexico Unit.”
But even if a diversion project is chosen, it could be decades before any water is drawn from the Gila. “If everything went perfect, which it won’t, you could probably pull something like this off in 10 years,” says Reclamation’s Riley. “That would be the minimum.”
The morning after the meeting in Cliff, Todd Schulke, senior staffer at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, stands along the Gila in Box Canyon Campground. Cottonwoods, black willows and sycamores grace the riverbanks and an elderly couple birdwatching nearby has just spotted yellow warblers. This area alone harbors six endangered species—two birds, two fish and two snakes—and it’s also popular among campers and birders.
Upstream, the river flows through the Gila Wilderness. Downstream from here, the river moves through irrigated fields. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., which owns New Mexico’s three copper mines, owns thousands of acres of land in the area and the water rights from the Gila that go with them. According to the company’s communications director, Eric Kinneberg, most of that land is leased for grazing. And some is leased to local farmers who grow alfalfa and hay.
In the late spring, before summer runoff pours out of the mountains, this stretch of the river can dry. During irrigation season, farmers need water from the river to irrigate their fields. By the time the Gila hits the Arizona border, it’s nothing like this lush, green landscape.
Even though activists like Schulke and Siwik have ignited passion for the Gila across the state, they haven’t convinced New Mexico’s political leaders that the water project not only threatens the river, but might leave New Mexico’s taxpayers footing the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars.
During this year’s Legislative session, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill directing the state to spend its federal money on conservation projects before considering diversion. At the time, Wirth was taken aback by the projected $348 million price tag—a number that has continued to climb as more people take a close look at the details.
Talk around the Roundhouse was that even though the bill probably wouldn’t make it onto the Senate floor, it had enough votes to pass the Senate Conservation Committee. Activists packed the halls and gallery that day, but the bill failed to pass when Democratic Sens. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, and Richard Martinez, D-Española, joined Republicans to vote against it.
During the public meeting in Cliff, someone from the audience asked Riley how far back the river would pond behind a proposed diversion just downstream from here. About a thousand feet, he estimated.
That would still the waters of the river rippling past Schulke as he looks around to see where the canals might be dug or anchored into the cliffs above.
“If we had a thousand miles of river like this, eh? What’s a thousand feet?” he asks, seeking shade under a cottonwood. “But we don’t have a thousand miles of river like this.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Lopez is a civil engineer. His degree is in petroleum engineering.