Repeating History on the Gila

New Mexico reveals its new plans for diverting the river's water

This month, the year-old state agency in charge of planning and operating a diversion on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico had to officially disclose its concept and location for the project. And while some of the plans still remain murky—not to mention complicated and expensive—in many ways, it feels like history is repeating itself.

Almost 50 years ago, on June 14, 1967, four couples fired off a telegram from Las Cruces to Sen. Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington. Called "Scoop" by his pals, Jackson chaired the Senate committee looking at a bill to authorize the Central Arizona Project, a system of dams, canals and aqueducts on the Colorado River and its tributaries.

The bill would grant New Mexico some new water rights and also call for Hooker Dam. Planned for the Gila River, its reservoir would back into the nation's first wilderness area, designated in 1924.

In the telegram, the couples registered their opposition to the dam. They complained that a lack of information was discouraging public participation. Building Hooker, they wrote, would violate the Wilderness Act.

That wasn't the only note Scoop received about the dam. Postmarked from California to New Jersey, telegrams and letters arrived from across the nation. They came from groups like the Texas Ornithological Society and the Methodist Church in Montana. Tucked into a file at the National Archives in Washington DC, the stack is more than 4 inches thick.

But in 1968, the bill passed—and Congress authorized Hooker Dam or its "suitable alternative."

Over the decades, plans for two other dams were also floated, and then sunk, on the Gila. Each time, the US Bureau of Reclamation faced not just opposition due to environmental impacts, but also high costs and technical problems.

Then, two years ago, New Mexico announced it would take advantage of its water rights by building a diversion on the Gila. That decision put New Mexico on course to receive about $100 million in federal money to design the project, study its possible impacts and then actually build it.

At their July meeting, board members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, also known as the CAP Entity, voted unanimously to support a recommendation by their executive director, Anthony Gutierrez.

Gutierrez' proposal combines two projects, built in phases: A diversion at the upper end of the Cliff-Gila Valley that would feed water underground, where it might be stored and used at a later time; and a second diversion leading to a surface reservoir.

Based on plans from engineers hired by the state, combining the two projects would cost more than $700 million to build, minus the cost for any overlapping components. That's seven times what the state expects to receive from the federal government—and as planned, the project would not yield the full 14,000 acre feet of water rights New Mexico is entitled to under federal law.

Gutierrez, however, tells SFR it's important to note that the project would be built in phases. "Each individual component can interact with any additional component or alternative," he says. "So therefore, that reduces the overall project costs."

He adds that while the initial construction would be geared toward delivering water to farmers, the project could be expanded for municipal use.

Next, New Mexico's consultants will help state officials refine the design and peg down the exact locations. They'll also have to begin studies required by laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act, which will require consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service over rare fish, bird and reptile species in the project area.

During the NEPA process, which can take years and cost millions of dollars, the Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission will evaluate the entity's proposal and various alternatives, as well as their possible impacts on the environment and cultural resources.

To receive the full federal subsidy, New Mexico needs to complete that work in time for the US Secretary of the Interior to issue a decision on the project by the end of 2019.

That deadline can be extended until 2030 if New Mexico demonstrates it isn't responsible for delays.

In other words, the state still has a long way to go before ground could ever break. And some people are never going to agree that trying to tame the Gila is a good idea.

For decades, Dutch Salmon has kept an eye on proposals to build on the river. He spent much of the '80s fighting against Connor Dam, proposed by the feds as an alternative to Hooker Dam. In the spring of '86, he even loaded up a 13-foot canoe, and then paddled—with his dog and cat—from within the Gila Wilderness to Safford, Arizona.

Today, he sports a cane and slow gait, but still shows up to all the Gila meetings—like a CAP Entity meeting in early June at the Grant County building.

Silver City's not a big town, and rural people watch out for one another, even when they disagree on controversial issues. And before the meeting, Salmon's no different from the farmers, local environmentalists, board members and federal employees asking after one another's families or turning to smile when hearing a familiar voice during the Pledge of Allegiance.

But Salmon's not giving up on his river.

"This is the fourth iteration of a dam on the Gila," Salmon says, listing them out: Hooker, then Connor, and Mangas that came later. This new idea doesn't even have a name. "We chased 'em out of the Box," he says, referring to the entity's decision to not build a diversion just downstream of the wilderness area. "Now they're looking at the Cliff-Gila Valley. It'll take us a couple of years, but we'll chase 'em out of there, too. It's okay. We'll do it."

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