Fate of Gila River to be determined in 2014

Gila Lower Box by Anthony Howell

By Allyson Siwik, Chapter executive committee, 03/24/14

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush signed the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) into law, and with a sweep of the pen he set into motion a process that could change the Gila River forever.

New Mexico must decide at the end of the year if it will move forward with a Gila River diversion or instead implement cost-effective non-diversion alternatives to meet southwest New Mexico’s future water-supply needs.

If New Mexico chooses diversion, this decision could commit taxpayers and water users to hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs and millions more in annual operation and maintenance costs and annual “exchange costs” that New Mexico must pay Arizona to replace the Gila water it diverts every year.

This project could irreparably harm one of the last wild rivers in the Southwest and the diverse flora and fauna dependent upon its waters for survival, such as the federally endangered loach minnow and spikedace, more than 300 species of birds, and miles of intact cottonwood-sycamore-willow bosque. A diversion project could also negatively impact outdoor recreation opportunities and the local economies dependent upon hiking, fishing, hunting and other recreation activities.

During the 2014 legislative session, Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and Sen. Howie Morales (D-Catron, Grant, Socorro) co-sponsored Senate Bill 89 to direct the Interstate Stream Commission to spend no less than $82 million in available AWSA funding on non-diversion alternatives to meet water needs, such as municipal and agricultural conservation, sustainable groundwater management, watershed restoration and effluent reuse. These measures could generate three times more water at a third of the cost of a diversion project.

Former ISC director Norm Gaume testified at the SB89 hearing that he had reviewed the ISC’s proposal, describing “fatal flaws” that would make the project technically infeasible. Prepared by Bohannan Huston for the ISC, the $350 million recommended alternative failed to plan for heavy sediment load that would clog conveyance pipelines and included a substandard design for the diversion structure, rendering it unable to withstand the Gila at high flow.

Annual evaporative and seepage losses from the storage reservoirs are estimated to be greater than the amount of water the project is designed to deliver every year. Gaume stated that the project costs could be two to three times greater than the ISC’s estimates.
The ISC will make its preliminary decision in August, followed by a final decision in November. We hope that common sense and fiscal responsibility prevail as the ISC contemplates the options before them. For more information, visit www.gilaconservation.org.