End Game on the Gila

State commission votes to divert the Gila River's waters, but staff say plan could take 20 more years

Allyson Siwik has spent the last decade organizing activists and poring over legal documents and scientific studies related to the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico.

And yet, she wasn't surprised on Monday when the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted to approve building a diversion on the river despite her opposition and objections from others. With only one commissioner voting against the plan, the board decided to tell the federal government that it wants to prioritize a project that would draw water from the river just downstream from where it leaves the Gila Wilderness Area, store it off-stream reservoirs, then pipe it 73 miles, over the Continental Divide, to Deming, New Mexico.

Moments after the vote, outgoing State Engineer Scott Verhines read aloud the commissioners' statement to US Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

"They already had the letter to the secretary of the interior written, so I think they knew how the vote was going to come down today," says Siwik, director of the nonprofit Gila Conservation Coalition. "I think the Interstate Stream Commission has had its mind made up for 10 years."

Although commissioner Blaine Sanchez voted against the diversion project, he said during the meeting that his vote would have been different if commissioners had received more information on how the project will be funded and who will foot the bill.

Sanchez, an enrolled member of Isleta Pueblo, grilled staff with more questions than any other commissioner and also said he was "disconcerted" by the amount of email he received from those opposing diversion. Impersonal or form emails lost their effectiveness, he said, adding that when emails came from outside New Mexico, they lacked real legitimacy. He said he's also still concerned that most state legislators and the US congressional delegation have not made their views on the issue known.

Environmentalists and some scientists have long questioned the ecological impacts a dam on the Gila might have, but this year, criticisms of the ISC’s data and the contractors’ designs came to the fore. Democratic state senators Peter Wirth and Howie Morales teamed up on a bill encouraging the ISC to consider conservation ahead of any diversion proposals, but it died in committee. Former ISC Director Norman Gaume also spoke out against the project—and eventually, filed a suit against the agency for alleged Open Meetings Act violations.

At first, Gaume says, he thought that the ISC simply lacked information—even about things like how much water the Gila might realistically yield versus the 14,000 acre-feet of water New Mexico would legally be entitled to each year.

Gaume and two other analysts estimate that in some years the diversion might yield a maximum 12,500 acre-feet of water from the Gila River. Based on studying the river's historical flows, they predict that in many years, however, the yield will be much less—even nothing.

"For me, originally, I thought it was all about facts, that they didn't know enough, that maybe I could help them out," he says. As more information came to light about design flaws, engineering and geology problems, and cost issues, he began to feel the agency was being "deliberately dishonest."

"It was just, the train was on the track and we've got a big cow catcher out front, and we're going to sweep all the opposition away," says the 66-year-old Gaume. "At first, I was feeling very bad about publicly opposing the agency I used to lead. I've gotten over that and now it just makes me sad, really sad."

Even with diversion on the table, the ground-breaking won't happen anytime soon. During the ISC's meeting in Albuquerque, commissioner Topper Thorpe asked how long it might be until construction is underway.

Thorpe, who abstained from Monday's vote on the diversion, is also chairman of the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission, which had put forth one of the diversion proposals not selected by the ISC.

Thorpe seemed taken aback by the answer offered by ISC staff: 20 years.

After the ISC officially notifies the federal government of its decision, the state must come up with 30 percent of a design plan. Only then will environmental studies–related to everything from endangered species to cultural resources–kick in under the National Environmental Policy Act. During that process, the public will be able to weigh in again.

Under a 2004 law, the federal government has set aside $66 million for the project already, pledging up to another $62 million if the state decided on a diversion project by the end of 2014.

Although ISC staff did not respond to requests for information about how much federal money the state has already spent, public documents show at least $4.2 million has already gone out the door for salaries, studies and contractors—and New Mexico plans to spend $3.3 million in 2015.

And while the state agency doesn't require approval from the New Mexico Legislature to move forward, the legislature will become involved if state tax dollars are used to fund a diversion project, says Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. Wirth says it also appears the amount of water delivered to consumers from the project won't match its high cost.

"Given the large gap between money coming from the federal government and the estimated cost of the project, should such a request for state money be presented, I expect a vigorous debate on the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars," says Wirth, who also believes the Legislature should take a closer look at how the commissioners are appointed: "As we have learned from our restructure of the state investment counsel, having balanced appointments results in a body that does not change policy direction based on the election of the executive."

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.