Dam it? N.M. grapples with Gila River’s future

ALBUQUERQUE – Stemming from America’s first wilderness area, the Gila River flows through the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, across the high desert and through the heart of Arizona, providing water to farmers and communities along the way.

The last free-flowing river in New Mexico and one of the few in the Southwest to hold on to so many of its native fish communities, changes could be in store for the Gila.

New Mexico is finally on the verge of accessing billions of gallons of river water through a series of settlements that stretch back to the late 1960s. Along with access to the water comes millions of dollars in federal funding to help develop that water.

The question that state water managers and residents throughout southwestern New Mexico are grappling with is how to best accomplish that.

With much of New Mexico in the clutches of a persistent drought, few want to turn down the opportunity for a new source of water. However, diverting any water from the river will cost money, and no one wants to upset the balance of the river’s already fragile ecology.

“This is all very serious, and I think it will have far-reaching, long-lasting effects on the four-county area down there,” said Jim Dunlap, chairman of New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, which has the final say.

“We must save this water for New Mexico and we must put it to the most beneficial uses that we can,” he said after last week’s commission meeting. “There is no other water that we know of that can be used, and consequently we’re entrapped in a sense. We have to project and look forward and make the best decision. That’s just the way it is.”

The commission approved recommendations made by its staff to further refine and study most of the 20 proposals that had been considered for developing the 14,000 acre-feet that would be available each year as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004.

Three proposals call for diversion and storage of the water. The others range from watershed restoration and infrastructure improvements to the reuse of wastewater.

At the top of the list is a $10.9 million proposal floated by the Gila Conservation Coalition that focuses on bolstering conservation and efficiency among municipalities in Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties. The commission voted to spend $100,000 to test the proposal’s feasibility.

The commission wants its staff to investigate how the proposals might be combined to best meet the needs of residents at the least cost.

Commissioners have until December 2014 to make their final recommendations to the U.S. Interior Department on which projects will be implemented.

A town hall meeting was held for residents in February to gauge public support for the various proposals. More meetings are expected over the next two years and the commission is working on a special website where progress reports, presentations and other documents will be posted.

It has taken years to get to this point. The settlement has been the focus of almost 300 public meetings over the past decade and emotions have sometimes run high.

Catron County Commission Chairman Hugh McKeen called the process frustrating and aggravating. He accused environmentalists of pushing an agenda that has resulted in overgrown forests and a crippled economy.

McKeen also complained that forecasts call for the Gila and nearby San Francisco rivers to become drier.

“In Arizona, there are dams on the Gila and the San Francisco. You see lakes,” he said. “We only have one little lake in Catron County, the biggest county in the state. Why are we so backward? Wherever you see dams and lakes, you see prosperity. You see people with a future.”

Others see the Gila as an iconic river. They argue that 14,000 acre-feet can be realized through smarter management and conservation rather than skimming water from the river during high flows, as allowed by the settlement.

Critics of the diversion projects also argue the water would come at a premium, including an annual exchange cost of about $1.7 million and another several million dollars each year for operations and maintenance of infrastructure.

There’s also fear that the water could be piped to Las Cruces, or El Paso, or elsewhere in Texas.

“If we put water in a pipe, it becomes a commodity and it will go to the highest bidder. That’s capitalism,” said Van Clothier, who runs a watershed restoration business in Silver City. “How will that benefit Catron County?”

The Gila Conservation Coalition, business owners and others pointed to the benefits that come from the anglers, birdwatchers and outdoor enthusiasts who are attracting by the Gila.

“This isn’t just water we’re talking about going downstream. This is about people,” said Mitchell Hellman, who owns a gelato shop along Silver City’s main street.

Allyson Siwik of the conservation coalition said the $66 million to $128 million that New Mexico stands to gain in federal funds would be enough to pay for all of the nondiversion projects aimed at bolstering the Gila and ensuring a more secure water future for southwestern New Mexico.

Craig Roepke, the stream commission’s deputy director, said there are no plans to dam the Gila in New Mexico and that environmental constraints are built in to the settlement to ensure safe diversions. He said having the ability to store water along the system could keep the Gila flowing during dry years.

Without specific designs, Siwik said it’s premature for the commission to say there’s not going to be ecological effects from diversion. She said scientists often look to the Gila as a reference point since it’s one of few free-flowing rivers in the desert Southwest.

“The Gila really is the last of the last,” she said. “This is a huge decision.”